The Remnant in the Book of Mormon: 3 Nephi 20-21, Regarding Themes
Posted by joespencer on April 22, 2010
In three previous posts, I have worked through some preliminaries regarding 3 Nephi 20-21, a number of analyses of the role of Micah in the text, and a number of similar analyses of the role of Isaiah in the text. Now, at last, I want to get back to the basic structure I worked out in the first of these three posts in order to begin to uncover what is at work in 3 Nephi 20-21 thematically. In other words, I want finally to connect these posts back up to the whole series of posts (see here and here and here and here and here and here) on the remnant in the Book of Mormon that preceded them. My wager, throughout this project, has been that what Nephi drew from Isaiah in terms of a remnant theology as he constructed his small plates record comes to full fruition in the Book of Mormon only with the sermon of 3 Nephi 20-21, when the visiting Christ Himself organizes an Isaianic (and Mican) remnant theology. It is time, at last, to see what’s actually happening thematically, that is, theologically, in 3 Nephi 20-21.
In what follows, I’ll be working through each of the parts of 3 Nephi 20-21 that I identified in my preliminary post. That is, I’m breaking up the two chapters into the following (hopefully manageable) chunks:
(1) Introduction: Isaiah, the remnant, the gathering, and the promised land (20:10-14)
(2) The Gentiles and Israel: Micah 5:7-9; 4:12-13 (20:15-21)
(3) The prophets and the Lehites: Moses, Abraham, and all the rest (20:22-28)
(4) The Jews and Isaiah: Isaiah 52:8-10 (20:28-35)
(5) More Isaiah: Isaiah 52:1-3, 7, 11-15 (20:36-46)
(6) The sign: the Book of Mormon comes forth (21:1-7)
(7) Isaiah and Micah redux: Isaiah 52:13-15 and Micah 5:8-15 (21:8-21)
(8) Repentant Gentiles: assisting Israel (21:22-24)
(9) The covenant: the work completed and Isaiah 52:12 (21:25-29)
I’ll dedicate a section of what follows to each of these, always with an emphasis on the remnant.
Introduction: 3 Nephi 20:10-14
The first mention of the remnant comes in the very first verse of Christ’s sermon: “Behold now I finish the commandment which the Father hath commanded me concerning this people, who are a remnant of the house of Israel” (20:10). Here Christ refers to His listeners as a (indefinite singular) remnant of the house of Israel, and makes it clear that this remnant is noted by, specifically, the Father (since the Father has given the Son commandments regarding that remnant). That this remnant is only one remnant among others is important, since in verse 13 Christ will already speak of “the remnants” in the plural.
Right from the beginning (verse 11), Christ makes this discourse a question of Isaiah—it is clear that He is making reference back to the end of 3 Nephi 16, where He first quoted the passage from Isaiah 52 that He will be taking up further along—and marks (Second) Isaiah’s prophecies as pointing to a crucial time in the unfolding history of the remnant: “when they [Isaiah's words] shall be fulfilled then is the fulfilling of the covenant which the Father hath made unto his people” (verse 12). When verse 13 then goes on to announce that it is at that time that “the remnants, which shall be scattered abroad upon the face of the earth, [shall] be gathered in,” it is unclear whether the event of this gathering is to be understood as separate from or equivalent to the fulfillment of the covenant. The problem is the introductory “And then” at the beginning of verse 13: does this mean that the covenant will be fulfilled alongside the gathering, or that the fulfillment of the covenant is the gathering. Perhaps the best reading takes these two together: the fulfillment of the covenant isn’t itself the gathering, but seems directly to lead to it?
At any rate, the gathering is a question of the remnants (definite plural), and these are clearly separated, in verse 14, from the singular remnant that is the Lehites: whereas the rest will be gathered in (presumably to a single central location), this remnant is to have “this land” (clearly the New World). Does this mean that there is a significant difference between “a remnant” and “the remnants,” as if the indefinition of the Lehites separates them out?
Whatever be the case, the introduction to Christ’s sermon opens a number of ambiguities that need to be clarified. At the very least, it points to a basic distinction between two kinds of remnant, a distinction that will have to be fleshed out through the remaining sections of the sermon.
The Gentiles and Israel: 3 Nephi 20:15-21
Without so much as a word of background (presuming that the entire audience has heard and made basic sense of 3 Nephi 15-16, it seems—note 3 Nephi 19:8), Christ turns to the question of the Gentiles: “And I say unto you, that if the Gentiles do not repent after the blessing which they shall receive . . .” (20:15). The consequence of non-repentance among the Gentiles—specifically among those Gentiles who, in the Americas, will have received the gospel through the Book of Mormon—is the “fulfillment” of Micah 5:8-9 (and 4:12-13). Here Christ again refers to the Lehites as “a remnant,” though now “of the house of Jacob” (most likely drawing that phrasing from Micah 5:8). And here the remnant that is the New World Lehites has the task of tearing through the unrepentant Gentiles like a lion.
Much speculation has, over the years, been wagered about the violence implied by the Mican imagery in verses 16-17. Should this passage be taken to imply that the Israelites are going to have some kind of bloody revolution? (Some have even recently begun to speculate that this passage is being fulfilled economically through the handing over of the larger American agrarian economy to Hispanic labor (whether legal or illegal). Such approaches, however, seem to me to miss the point. As verses 18-19 (from Micah 4) make clear, the point here is to talk about a gathering of the latter-day Lehites, one that will allow them to thresh the Gentiles and so receive goods of them. This theme comes to its crucial, but complex, climax in the announcement of consecration, and that announcement deserves extended attention.
The basic idea, it seems, is that the goods of the (American) Gentiles will fall into the hands of the remnant, and so that the remnant will be outfitted, so to speak, through the impoverishment of the Gentiles. So it seems, at any rate, but things are quite a bit more complex, in the end. What, for example, should one do with the ambiguity of the word “their” (in “I will consecrate their gain unto the Lord”)? Does it mean the gain of the Gentiles (their excess or some such thing), or does it mean the gain of the remnant (their spoils as they tread down the Gentiles)? Why, moreover, is what is consecrated to be consecrated to the Lord? Is the implication that whatever is taken from the Gentiles is not to be used or had by the remnant but delivered up—in a kind of sacrifice—to the Lord? Incidentally, the Hebrew word behind “consecrate” in the Micah text would seem to imply such a sacrifice: it is the word employed elsewhere in the Old Testament when the Mosaic “ban” is referred to—that is, the requirement that spoils obtained during holy war are all to be destroyed and so given to the Lord, that they are not, at any rate, to be kept by Israel. On the other hand, though, there is this language, in verse 21, of the Father’s “establish[ing His] people,” which would seem to suggest that He is employing the spoils in order to set up the remnant in the land He has offered to them. What, in the end, is at work in this text?
Complicating this whole business is the way that D&C 42 will eventually draw on what appears to be this same passage when it inaugurates the law of consecration in the last dispensation: there the talk is explicitly about the Lord employing the wealth of the Gentiles to set up the downtrodden New World remnant. How do all these pieces fit together?
For the most part, I think I want to leave questions of consecration open, allowing for several readings. Besides, the point in the text at hand is not to clarify the details of consecration (as it is in D&C 42), but to make clear that the Father Himself, as part of the fulfillment of the covenant, will establish the remnant in the New World land of promise—and that this establishment will, in part, be effected through a massive judgment (and despoiling, it seems) of the Gentiles. Let that suffice for now.
The prophets and the Lehites: 3 Nephi 20:22-28
With the next few verses, Christ leaves Micah behind in order to take up Moses and Abraham (mentioning also Jacob and Samuel, etc.), and He significantly takes these up through further quotations of the Old Testament as we have it. But before He gets to the prophets, Christ first introduces two concepts that have not appeared in the Book of Mormon before this: the “New Jerusalem,” and the “powers of heaven.” A word or two concerning them, and then I’ll take up Moses and Abraham.
Verse 22 begins in a relatively predictable vein, given what Christ has been talking about before this. But when He suddenly announces, halfway through the verse, that the establishment of the Lehites in the New World will be “a New Jerusalem,” He takes a sudden detour. The phrase “new Jerusalem” appears, of course, in the Revelation of Saint John, but it isn’t at all clear that the references to be found there have any direct connection with the references found here (the “New Jerusalem” Moroni talks about in 13 does however seem to have some kind of connection with the one in the Apocalypse; this one, however, is built, rather than bestowed from heaven). Of course, verse 22 here marks only the first mention of the “New Jerusalem” in Christ’s discourse; He’ll take it up again in 21:23-24. It will be necessary to take it up as a theme more explicitly when I come to that passage further along.
Coupled with the mention of the New Jerusalem is the arrival in that city of “the powers of heaven.” This phrase does appear once in the New Testament (Luke 21:26), but it seems to have a completely different meaning there (apparently referring to demonic powers to be overcome through Christ’s advent). Importantly, Christ introduces the phrase here and then comes back to it in 21:25, immediately following His coming back to the theme of the New Jerusalem. That is, in both instances where the phrase “powers of heaven” appears in Christ’s discourse, it is coupled with talk of the New Jerusalem (as well as with Christ’s dwelling in the midst of Israel). He mentions the powers of heaven one further time, in 3 Nephi 28:7, where it seems to have a similar significance: though there is no talk there of the New Jerusalem by name, the passage does deal with Christ’s coming to dwell in the midst of Israel again. It would take a bit of work to begin to develop what Christ might mean by the phrase. Again, it seems best to postpone detailed discussion until I take up 21:23-25. For now, let me turn to the prophets Christ discusses.
Christ quotes Moses in verse 23: “A prophet shall the Lord your God raise up unto you of your brethren, like unto me; him shall ye hear in all things whatsoever he shall say unto you. And it shall come to pass that every soul who will not hear that prophet shall be cut off from among the people.” The reference here is clearly Deuteronomy 18 (see verses 15 and 18-19). But what might too easily be missed is that Christ does not interpret the passage messianically. That is, He does not take the passage to be referring to the events of Christ’s mortal sojourn—which is how Latter-day Saints tend to read the passage. Rather, He takes it as referring to the eschatological events surrounding the gathering of Israel, the establishment of the New Jerusalem, and the dwelling of Christ int he midst of Israel (as is clear from the connection of verse 23 with verse 22). This is significant: twice before this, Nephite prophets have dealt with this text from Deuteronomy, and Christ is clearly situating Himself with regard to them. First, Nephi quotes the passage in 1 Nephi 22:20, introducing it by talking about the Lord “prepar[ing] a way for his people” for their final gathering, and following it by explaining that “this prophet of whom Moses spake was the Holy One of Israel” (employing the technical Isaianic phrase to describe the Lord’s role in the eventual gathering). Nephi and Christ, in a word, have the same approach to the text from Deuteronomy: it has reference, for them, to the events surrounding the final gathering. The other prophet to quote the passage, importantly, is Abinadi—and I have already spelled out the basics about the way that Nephi, Abinadi, and Christ all handle Isaiah. The same pattern holds here. Abinadi references Deuteronomy 18 in Mosiah 13:33, clearly interpreting the passage as referring not to the Lord’s role in the final gathering, but to His mortal work (immediately following it by His Christologically interpreted quotation of Isaiah 53). Just as Abinadi takes Isaiah to be Christological rather than eschatological and thus breaks with Nephi (and Christ), he does the same with Deuteronomy. It seems, therefore, that Christ is, in these verses, doing what He does generally with Isaiah: restoring Nephi’s approach to the prophets.
Significantly, Christ goes on, in verse 24, to explain that “all the prophets from Samuel . . . have testified of [Him],” further reverting Abinadi’s “all the prophets who have prophesied ever since the world began—have they not spoken more or less concerning these things [that is, the mortal advent of Christ]?” (Mosiah 13:33). It is a fascinating move: Christ takes all the prophets to be pointed toward the events surrounding the fulfillment of the covenant, not surrounding the effectuation of the atonement. It is a point that I think deserves closer attention.
Lest this last point be missed, Christ next turns to Abraham in order to point to the crucial place of the covenant in all this, even quoting the covenant: “the covenant which the Father made with your fathers, saying unto Abraham: And in thy seed shall all the kindreds of the earth be blessed” (verse 25). In verse 26, He explains that His coming to the Lehites is meant to open a whole era (described in verse 27): “The Father having raised me up unto you first, and sent me to bless you in turning away every one of you from his iniquities; and this because ye are the children of the covenant—And after that ye were blessed then fulfilleth the Father the covenant which he made with Abraham, saying: In thy seed shall all the kindreds of the earth be blessed—unto the pouring out of the Holy Ghost through me upon the Gentiles, which blessing upon the Gentiles shall make them mighty above all, unto the scattering of my people, O house of Israel.” The entirety of the Abrahamic covenant is, it seems, to be connected to the eventual dissemination of the Book of Mormon among the Gentiles, allowing the Gentiles to be coupled with gathering Israel (see verse 28 as well).
In sum: it should not be missed that, for Christ, the prophets—and even the stories in Genesis, it seems—point to the eventual gathering, not to the Messiah in the meridian of time. And that eventual gathering is first and foremost a question of the emergence of the Book of Mormon.
The Jews and Isaiah: 3 Nephi 20:29-35
Here, at last, is the passage in which Isaiah 52:8-10 is finally quoted. In my previous post working through the basics on Isaiah 52 in 3 Nephi 20-21, I noted five consequences of the changes made here to the original Isaiah text. The first four of those five consequences all revolve around what might be called the flattening of Isaiah: the word of Isaiah are worked into a third-person, descriptive prophecy, and so the text loses its dialogical character, as well as its dramatic/liturgical flavor—with even the second-person imperatives being flattened into third-person descriptive predictions. This ends up even changing the structure of the passage (it is, effectively, split in two, each of its two “parts” being tacked onto a non-Isaianic prophecy).
But if all of these changes primarily relate to the way that Christ works the text of Isaiah 52 into His own prophecy, it is the last of the five consequences that should prove theologically the most productive: Christ replaces “the Lord” with “the Father” at every possible place in the text. Of course, this is in part also due to the flattening of the Isaiah text—because Christ has been speaking of the Father throughout the prophecy that frames the quotation, it isn’t surprising that He introduces the term into the Isaiah passage itself—but it is, of all the changes, the one that most emphatically ruptures the meaning of the original. This is signaled particularly by the clause that Christ tacks onto the end of verse 35: “and the Father and I are one.” This deserves attention.
As I’ve discussed before, this same passage from Isaiah 52 comes up before this in Christ’s discourse. He quotes it at the conclusion of 3 Nephi 16. There, importantly, “the Lord” is never replaced with “the Father.” This makes sense in light of the way that Christ opens the discourse of 3 Nephi 20. It begins with Him making reference back to His 3 Nephi 16 quotation of Isaiah: “Ye remember that I spake unto you, and said that when the words of Isaiah should be fulfilled—behold they are written, ye have them before you, therefore search them” (3 Nephi 20:11). But what is important there is that He then goes on to explain: “And verily, verily, I say unto you, that when they [that is, Isaiah 52:8-10, as quoted in 3 Nephi 16] shall be fulfilled then is the fulfilling of the covenant which the Father hath made unto his people, O house of Israel” (3 Nephi 20:12). The point here, it seems, is that when Isaiah 52:8-10 as it stands in the Old Testament is fulfilled, it brings to an end the era in which the Lord does His work, and opens onto the era in which the Father does His (when Isaiah 52:8-10, with all its talk of the Lord is fulfilled, “then is the fulfilling of the covenant which the Father hath made,” etc.). It is as if Isaiah 52:8-10 marks the threshold between two eras.
Importantly, and as I’ve mentioned before, when Christ takes up Isaiah 52:8-10 in 3 Nephi 20:32-35, He never mentions that the words are Isaiah’s. And He clearly alters a text He has before quoted as it appears in the Old Testament. Here it is not a question of fulfilling the words of Isaiah—that will have happened by this point in the story already. Here, then, it is a question of the way that the Father repeats in outline what the Lord (the Son?) will have already done. That Christ uses—but does not quote—Isaiah in order to prophecy of the Father’s activities makes it clear that there is a kind of parallel between what the Lord will do and what the Father will do after that, but only the former’s work will amount to a direct fulfillment of the Isaianic prophecy. This, interestingly, goes a long way toward explaining all of the flattening that is at work in the use of Isaiah 52 here. All of the liturgical, dramatic, and dialogical aspects of the Isaiah text itself are elements of the climax that is the Lord’s work. None of that need be bothered with in the description of what the Father will do—though the words of the same text can be used to outline that work.
What, though, of this whole “and the Father and I are one” business? Is there some kind of indication that the two quotations of Isaiah are to be reduced to one? I don’t think so. Rather, it seems to me that the final statement at the end of verse 35 is meant to make clear that there is a following of the same pattern for both Father and Son (= Lord?). It is, I think, quite clear that the same event is not being described; instead, it seems that the point is to show that both the Father and the Son work on the same basic understanding, with the same basic plan.
Of course, the same “and the Father and I are one” sentence points back to 3 Nephi 11, with all of its discussion of the relationship between the Father and the Son. There it is a question of sorting out what is at work in baptism: to baptize in Christ’s name is to baptize in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost—because they are one. This sorting out of things then opens onto a rather complex discourse of the distinct positions/roles of the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost, one I don’t want to take the time to analyze in any detail here. I assume that the connection between all of that and the passage under consideration here is simply that the mutual relationship of testifying laid out in 3 Nephi 11—the Father bearing record of the Son, the Son bearing record of the Father—seems to be incarnated in this both-of-them-using-the-same-pattern business: that they both take up the pattern outlined by Isaiah shows one way in which they bear record of each other. Or something along those lines, anyway.
Let this suffice for now, particularly because this part of 3 Nephi 20-21 doesn’t even mention the remnant by name.
More Isaiah: 3 Nephi 20:36-46
Here, it seems to me, there is relatively little to be said. As made clear in my post on Isaiah 52 in 3 Nephi 20-21, there are few changes here from the “original” text. This seems to be a consequence of the fact that these verses are cited as “that which is written”: there is no flattening, no exchange of terms, etc. These texts are simply cited and then it is said (verse 46) that “these things shall surely come. Importantly, verse 46 suggests that all of this quotation is a return to the events preceding the intervention of the Father: “all these things shall surely come . . . . Then shall this covenant which the Father hath covenanted with his people be fulfilled.” The flattened appropriation of these verses from Isaiah 52, then, is postponed until 3 Nephi 21. And it is time, I think, to turn to that chapter.
The sign: 3 Nephi 21:1-7
Turning, now, to 3 Nephi 21, a text that introduces the “sign” that will mark the transition from the work of “the Lord” to the work of “the Father.” The, sign, quite straightforwardly, is the emergence of the Book of Mormon. But the whole story surrounding that is complicated by so much language of “the servant,” introduced in the unaltered quotation of Isaiah 52:11-15 at the end of 3 Nephi 20. I’ll take up the servant in the next part of this post. Here, for the moment, I just want to clarify what’s happening with the sign—and its connection to the remnant—in the first verses of 3 Nephi 21. In order to do that, allow me to quote 3 Nephi 21:1-7 in full. I’ve altered the punctuation and added emphases and insertions and the like in order to clarify what I’m trying to get from this passage. (I should note that this is one of the more difficult passages grammatically in the Book of Mormon because it keeps doubling back to the question of when, postponing the completion of four incomplete sentences until the very end of the passage.) Here it is:
And, verily I say unto you, I give unto you a sign, that ye may know the time when these things shall be about to take place—[that is, when the time comes] that I shall gather in, from their long dispersion, my people, O house of Israel, and shall establish again among them my Zion. And behold, this is the thing which I will give unto you for a sign—
for verily I say unto you that when these things which I declare unto you [now], and which I shall declare unto you hereafter of myself [during this visit], and by the power of the Holy Ghost which shall be given unto you of the Father [after I have gone], shall be made known unto the Gentiles that they may know concerning this people who are a remnant of the house of Jacob, and concerning this my people who shall be scattered by them—
verily, verily, I say unto you, when these things shall be made known unto them of the Father, and shall come forth of the Father, from them unto you (for it is wisdom in the Father that they [the Gentiles] should be established in this land, and be set up as a free people by the power of the Father, that these things might come forth from them unto a remnant of your seed, that the covenant of the Father may be fulfilled which he hath covenanted with his people, O house of Israel)—
therefore, when these works and the works which shall be wrought among you hereafter shall come forth from the Gentiles unto your seed which shall dwindle in unbelief because of iniquity (for thus it behooveth the Father that it should come forth from the Gentiles that he may show forth his power unto the Gentiles, for this cause: that the Gentiles, if they will not harden their hearts that they may repent and come unto me and be baptized in my name and know of the true points of my doctrine, that they may be numbered among my people, O house of Israel)—
and when these things come to pass that thy seed shall begin to know these things:
it shall be a sign unto them, that they may know that the work of the Father hath already commenced unto the fulfilling of the covenant which he hath made unto the people who are of the house of Israel.
The complexity of this passage is, I hope, mitigated somewhat by the way I’ve presented it here. After what I have blocked off as the first paragraph, three wordy and remarkably complex paragraphs follow, each describing the same event in rather different terms but putting off the completion of what they are trying to announce. The paragraph (or really, the single separated line) that follows those three paragraphs finally gathers all three together into one announcement that paves the way to what I have blocked off as the last paragraph, the final identification of everything announced in the several intervening paragraphs as the sign. I hope this is clear.
From all this, at any rate, I think it should be obvious that the sign to which Jesus here makes reference is the emergence of the Book of Mormon, to the event of its coming to the Lamanites. That, I think, is straightforwardly the case. And obviously, much more can be said about all of this, but for now I want only to make clear (1) what the sign is, and (2) that the sign is inextricably entangled with the question of the remnant (here equivalent to the Lehites in the last days who will receive the Book of Mormon from the Gentiles). Concerning this second point, it should be noted not only that 3 Nephi 21:1-7 specifically describes the work of the Book of Mormon event as the coming forth of the book to, specifically, the remnant, but also that the larger passage of 3 Nephi 21:1-10 clearly sets up the quotation of Micah 5:8-15, something through which Christ greatly clarifies the remnant theology He is propounding.
Isaiah and Micah redux: 3 Nephi 21:8-21
So soon as the “sign” is given, Christ moves on to His further quotations of Isaiah and Micah. First, of course, comes Isaiah, and Christ here returns to His appropriation-rather-than-quotation style of flattening the Isaiah text into His own prophecy. What is so curious, though, is that He takes up the last verses of Isaiah 52 (specifically verses 13-15, those generally associated with Isaiah 53) immediately after talking about the emergence of the Book of Mormon. The curious consequence is that when these verses introduce an unidentified “servant,” it seems that suddenly someone extraneous is being introduced to the story. Who is this servant? Following an idea first set forth, so far as I know, by Gaye Strathearn, I would like to take the “servant” in 3 Nephi 20-21 as referring specifically to the Book of Mormon.
On this reading, it is the Book of Mormon that causes “kings” to “shut their mouths”; it is the Book of Mormon that “had not been told them” and that “they had not heard”; it is “the life” of the Book of Mormon that will be “in [the Lord's] hand,” that “shall not” be “hurt”; it is the Book of Mormon that will “be marred because of them,” but not without the Lord stepping in to “heal him,” in order to “show . . . that [His] wisdom is greater than the cunning of the devil.” Strathearn argues that the healing of the Book of Mormon referred to here is the providing of the small plates in the place of the lost portion of the original Book of Mormon manuscript, something especially marked by the language of God’s “wisdom” being “greater than the cunning of the devil,” a word unmistakably echoed in D&C 10:43. Note also, by way of evidence, that verse 9 quotes Isaiah 29′s “great and marvelous” work—which it interestingly couples with Habakkuk 1:5, though the “translation” of this latter is mediated by Acts 13:41, without question—that is, quotes the text Nephi expands massively in 2 Nephi 26-27 in order to speak, precisely, of the loss of the relationship between Joseph Smith and Martin Harris. All this seems to confirm that it is precisely the loss of the manuscript that seems to be what Christ has in mind. And the strongest indication is, of course, verse 11: “Therefore it shall come to pass that whosoever will not believe in my words, who am Jesus Christ, which the Father shall cause him to bring forth unto the Gentiles,” etc. It seems straightforwardly clear that the story here is a story of the Book of Mormon.
Having worked through Isaiah 52:13-15 again, Christ now returns to Micah 5:8-9, this time coupling it with Micah 5:10-15. I have discussed a few of these changes in my previous post on Micah in 3 Nephi 20-21. There I pointed out first what seemed to be two minor changes but which have a larger significance than might at first appear. The first of these is that “the Lord” is replaced by “the Father,” something that should perhaps no longer be surprising, given what Christ had already done with Isaiah 52 in the texts discussed above. The second minor change is that Christ’s reworking of the Micah text here is a distancing of the heathens from the Gentiles: whereas in the “original” from the Old Testament, the heathens are the Gentiles, here the heathens are not the Gentiles, and the Gentiles who don’t repent are to face what the heathens are going to receive.
At any rate, through a deft reapplication of these verses, Christ makes what had originally been aimed at Israel (all the cleansing of verses 14-19) is here aimed at the Gentiles (the Gentiles are to be cleansed). And, importantly, that cleansing that is here aimed at the Gentiles is intended specifically to prepare them for adoption into Israel with the remnant (“a remnant of Jacob” which is to be among the Gentiles). But all of this is just to set up the last verses of the chapter, in commenting upon which I will finally have to get theological.
Repentant Gentiles: 3 Nephi 21:22-24
In many ways, verses 22-29 mark the theological culmination of the remnant themes in the Book of Mormon. I want to deal with these verses—in two stretches—at some length.
Verse 22 opens with a very interesting description of the role of the church in the middle of all this story of covenant fulfillment: “But if they [the Gentiles] will repent and hearken unto my words, and harden not their hearts, I will establish my church among them, and they shall come in unto the covenant and be numbered among this the remnant of Jacob, unto whom I have given this land for their inheritance.” Several things should be noted here. First, the organization of a church is only associated with the Gentiles in this story: nowhere does Christ mention any churches until this point, and at this point it is something the Gentiles will have established among them. Second, the church that is established seems to be for the (sole?) purpose of bringing the Gentiles “in unto the covenant,” thus allowing them to “be numbered among this the remnant of Jacob.” Third, the Gentiles are implicitly described as a people without a land, since the remnant is the collective heir of “this land”: the way the Gentiles can gain access to the land at all is only through the remnant. Fourth, the word “remnant” is, as usual in the Book of Mormon, employed in a rather literal fashion.
The picture that begins to emerge here, then, is that of the remnant being assisted, specifically through the establishment of a Gentile church, in their efforts to secure the land according to the promises. This is confirmed and then clarified in important ways in the next verse: “And they shall assist my people, the remnant of Jacob, and also as many of the house of Israel as shall come, that they may build a city, which shall be called the New Jerusalem.” Here the actual language of assistance appears. But much more, the assistance in securing the land is focused in a very specific effort: they have the task of building “a city, which shall be called the New Jerusalem.” Importantly, the group associated directly with this city is expanded immediately—indeed, even before talk of building begins: it is to be the home not only of the remnant of Jacob, but also of “as many of the house of Israel as shall come.” Here, it seems, the remnant is a kind of “quilting point,” a foundation for the opening up of a larger work. These others of Israel are not, it seems clear, a direct part of the remnant; they are, rather, so many scattered Israelites who find a home in the New Jerusalem. Whatever is going on here, it will be clarified in verse 26 below.
It should be noted further that the “New Jerusalem” is an entirely earthly affair: it is a city to be built by human beings (other scriptural texts talk about a New Jerusalem that will descend from the sky, but this is not what is referenced here), specifically by the assistance of the Gentiles. The city seems to be a New Jerusalem because it is the central location for the gathering of the non-Jewish Israelites. But it is important, perhaps, that the city is described not as being the New Jerusalem, but as being called the New Jerusalem: the city to be built will be given that name, perhaps in association with the New Jerusalem that will be described elsewhere as descending from above? At any rate, the Gentiles are to assist the gathering remnant in building a foundational city.
Verse 24, then: “And then shall they assist my people that they may be gathered in, who are scattered upon all the face of the land, in unto the New Jerusalem.” Here a second task of assistance is laid out, but direct discussion of the remnant disappears: the Gentiles now assist the non-remnant portions of Israel, specifically in gathering in to the New Jerusalem. The remnant, it seems, is a kind of Israelite vanguard, the group given the task of setting up the central location (with the assistance of the Gentiles), after which the rest of Israel can be gathered in. The remnant, at long last, is given a clarified role—after everything that’s been said in all these posts. It is not simply that the remnant is—as it still is as recently as verse 22—just a fragment of Israel, just a word to describe what’s left of a once more numerous people. The remnant is that excessive bit of Israel who, in its complex relationship with the Gentiles, will be associated with the building of the New Jerusalem, with the establishment of a quilting point around which everything else will orbit. This calls for a bit of further reflection about the remnant, particularly because the remnant will be, so to speak, surpassed in the last five verses of the chapter.
It is only here, in all the Book of Mormon and despite all its emphasis on the remnant, that the remnant of Israel/Jacob receives at last a fully theological articulation. The theme of the remnant in both the Old and New Testaments is theological from the outset. The best reader of the remnant theology as it appears in the Bible, it seems to me, is Giorgio Agamben, who gives it a very precise—if quite theological—interpretation. For Agamben, it is crucial to note that the remnant is at once everyone and, apparently, no one in particular. It is introduced in the biblical tradition in Amos, where it is employed as a figure of hope in the middle of a prophecy of absolute destruction, as if even absolute destruction—without remainder—nonetheless preserves the remnant. Agamben takes this complexity as a starting point for thinking about especially what Saint Paul has to say about the remnant: for Paul, the remnant is that unnameable excess of humanity that is neither Jewish nor Greek, that unknowable “something” that prevents the totalization of humanity.
I have not tried, to this point, to bring Agamben into my discussions, primarily so that I could allow the theme of the remnant as it appears in the Book of Mormon to speak for itself. And I think that the remnant has, for the most part, been quite a bit more literalized in the Nephite tradition than it is in the biblical tradition. But perhaps that begins to change with this most explicit prophecy about the New Jerusalem: here, at last, the remnant is marked as a kind of foundation for the rest of Israel, as an overlooked group that will find itself with the task of establishing the site for the unfolding of the eschaton.
In order, though, to deal with this most responsibly, let me get that eschaton itself on the table by dealing with the last five verses of the chapter. Once the eschaton itself is clear, I can turn—at last—to a full theological discussion of the remnant. It should probably be undertaken in a separate post, I am now realizing. I here promise a last post on the remnant, one that will take up Agamben in some detail, that will review the remnant theme in the Book of Mormon as a whole—now in light of this sudden theological twist in 3 Nephi 21—and one that will attempt finally to outline a Book of Mormon theology of the remnant.
The covenant: 3 Nephi 21:25-29
The eschaton’s description begins with a return of the theme of “the power of heaven” coming down among those gathered in the New Jerusalem. Coupled with that is Christ Himself, apparently: “I also will be in the midst” (3 Nephi 21:25). Whatever is meant by the curious phrase “the power of heaven,” it seems to be what actually sets all of the final events described in motion: once that power descends onto the New Jerusalem, “the work of the Father commence[s] among all the dispersed of [the Lord's] people, yea, even the tribes which have been lost, which the Father hath led away out of Jerusalem” (3 Nephi 21:26). What kind of work characterizes the eschaton? There is no detailed description, but verse 27 says at least this: it is a question of “prepar[ing] the way whereby they [the dispersed of the Lord's people] may come unto [Him], that they may call on the Father in [His] name.” Or again in verse 28: it is a question of “preparing the way whereby [the Father’s] people may be gathered home to the land of their inheritance.” Christ tops off this all-too-brief description with a return to Isaiah 52:12 in verse 29, describing the departure of Israel “from all nations”: “they shall not go out in haste, nor go by flight, for I will go before them, saith the Father, and I will be their rearward.”
And that is all Christ has to say about the actual eschaton. Precisely as in the writings of Nephi, what happens beyond the point of the eschaton’s commencement is not taken up in any detail. The event is, really, only named. Or at least, it is only named here. More will be intimated with the quotations of Isaiah and Micah that follow in the subsequent chapters, but nothing is said directly about it. And so soon as Mormon attempts to say something specific, he finds himself stopped by the Lord Himself. Our task as readers of the Book of Mormon, it seems, is to speed toward the eschaton, not to bother with what will happen once the eschaton arrives.
But let me get on, finally, to my last post: towards a remnant theology.
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