Book of Mormon Lesson #5: “Hearken to the Truth, and Give Heed unto It,” 1 Nephi 16-18, and 19-22 (Sunday School)
Posted by joespencer on January 19, 2012
This lesson is supposed to finish off First Nephi, though chapters 19-22 are something of a tack-on (included only under “Additional Teaching Ideas”). I’ll tackle all seven chapters, I guess, though I’ll have to be a bit more spare than I’ve been in the previous couple of posts. I’ll proceed as follows. First, I’ll address briefly the parallel plot lines of 1 Nephi 16 and 1 Nephi 18. Second, I’ll give a bit more attention, at the theological level, to 1 Nephi 17. Third, I’ll add a brief discussion about the wrap-up of 1 Nephi 18 and its complex relationship to 1 Nephi 19. Fourth, I’ll say a handful of things about 1 Nephi 19-22 more generally. Fifth and finally, I’ll take up 1 Nephi 20-21, that is, Isaiah 48-49.
That’s a lot to tackle. But I’ll see what I can do here. Oh, and let me note yet again that very little of what I’m doing here will make sense without familiarity with my “preliminaries on Nephi post. Now, to work!
1 Nephi 16, 18
Let me note, before looking too closely at chapters 16 and 18, that the chapter breaks in the original Book of Mormon complicate things pretty drastically here. Chapter V of the original Book of Mormon begins in what is now 1 Nephi 16:1 and ends with what is now 1 Nephi 19:21. It stretches, that is, from the beginning of the journey departing from the Valley of Lemuel, continues through the difficulties in Bountiful, crosses the ocean with Lehi’s company, lands in the New World, passes through Nephi’s sermonic aside concerning the prophecies in the brass plates, and comes to a culmination immediately before the introduction of Isaiah. Its conclusion corresponds to no chapter break in the current edition of the Book of Mormon. I’ll have more to say about the significance of this chapter break further along (in my comments on 1 Nephi 18-19); for the moment, it’s enough just to see that what is now chapters 16 and 18 were a part of a single larger chapter.
Chapter 16 (the story of the journey across the desert to Bountiful) and chapter 18 (the story of the journey across the ocean to the promised land) are clearly meant to be parallel. Separating them is the situation at Bountiful, which they together set off. Each narrative follows something of the same pattern, detailing a major, life-threatening crisis during which Nephi doesn’t lose his head, while everyone else does—including Lehi. In many ways, the point of these two stories is, immediately following Nephi’s explanation (in 1 Nephi 15) that he had seen more in his vision than Lehi had in his, to recount the effective prophetic succession, when Nephi becomes the leading figure and Lehi fades into the background. Whether everything is quite kosher in that succession is something the reader has to decide. (Grant Hardy has suggested that there are important tensions in this success, tensions that tell us a good deal about Nephi as an author.)
I’ll skip over the first events in 1 Nephi 16—the brief account of the response of Laman and Lemuel to Nephi’s sermonizing in 1 Nephi 16, the marriage sequence, and the discovery of the “round ball of curious workmanship” (verse 10). I have nothing terribly significant to say about any of these events. I want to begin with verse 12, the actual departure. I suspect it’s significant that the journey begins with a river crossing. There are echoes, here, of the crossings of the Red Sea, as well as of the Jordan—keeping with the Exodus themes that permeate this narrative, but also pointing, perhaps, to Elijah.
But quickly the narrative turns into a kind of log or itinerary, something not unlike the travel narratives in, say, the Book of Acts. We get a brief account of the travel to and (brief?) stay in Shazer in verses 13-14 before quickly moving on to a longer travel sequence of “many days,” during which the company is “led … in the more fertile parts of the wilderness” (1 Nephi 16:16). All this seems so banal, so straightforward, that the reader begins to wonder whether this narrative is going to be nothing but this sort of thing—so much journal-entry reporting of simple travel stories. But then, just after these first couple of “entries,” the first crisis occurs.
The story is more than famous. The family sets up camp, Nephi breaks his bow, his brothers get angry, and everyone begins to suffer. Verse 20 marks what for Nephi is clearly a crucial moment: “And also my father began to murmur against the Lord his God.” And it’s this moment that pushes Nephi to real action. Actually, he first begins by doing a lot of talking, as is his wont: “I, Nephi, did speak much unto my brethren because that they had hardened their hearts again, even unto complaining against the Lord their God” (1 Nephi 16:22). And then Nephi gets to work, making a new bow, making arrows to match, arming himself with sling and stones, and then asking his father where he should go for food.
That last moment is, naturally, the crucial part of this story. I’ve already mentioned that this narrative (along with chapter 18) is meant to mark the transition from Lehite to Nephite leadership, and this moment when Lehi has, according to Nephi, already begun to slip in his determination while Nephi has not, but Nephi nonetheless goes to his father in, as it were, submission—this moment is crucial. It’s (meant to be) a gesture of humility on Nephi’s part, but it leads to Lehi’s serious chastisement. Lehi asks the Lord, and is “truly chastened because of his murmurings against the Lord, insomuch that he was brought down into the depths of sorrow” (1 Nephi 16:25). (Note that that last phrase, about being “brought down,” and mentioning “the depths of sorrow,” is what ties this narrative about Lehi’s demise to its parallel in chapter 18 most strongly.) Lehi then looks on the ball in obedience to a word from God, and—along with everyone else—fears and trembles for what is written there.
This whole narrative sequence is deeply interesting. It isn’t difficult to note the obvious echoes of the Exodus story running throughout it (as they similarly run throughout the whole of First Nephi). But it’s a bit difficult to sort out what those echoes mean for the relationship between Nephi and Lehi. Are they both meant to be Moses figures? Is one an Aaron figure and the other a Moses figure? Is the “demise” of Lehi here an echo of the Israelites’ losing faith in Moses and attempting to kill him, and if so, would that include Nephi in the “bad” group? But it’s obviously of importance that, in a moment, Nephi will find his way up into the mountain, right after everyone else has been afraid of what the Lord has written for them. Is it rather, then, that Nephi is the Moses figure, and Lehi is a kind of Aaron figure, leading the group in a kind of idolatrous dance about a golden calf at the foot of the mountain? All of these complications are, important, and the fact that there are no overly simple parallels while there are nonetheless consistent echoes should keep us wondering exactly what the relationship between Lehi and Nephi ultimately is.
Interestingly, it’s precisely at this point when everyone (but Nephi) is shaking in fear that Nephi steps aside from the narrative to tell us that he figured out the way the Liahona works: “And it came to pass [narrative marker rather than editorial aside!] that I, Nephi, beheld that the pointers, which were in the ball, that they did work according to the faith and diligence and heed which we did give unto them” (1 Nephi 16:28). Nephi continues with a word about the changing writing, etc., and then gives us a classic Book of Mormon “and thus we see” (1 Nephi 16:29), moving from narrative report to editorial aside. The insertion is important because it seems to have importance to this narrative specifically: “And thus we see that by small means, the Lord can bring about great things.” Can Nephi really be talking about anything other than himself here? Lehi is the great figure—as is at least Laman. But Nephi is the small one—with his makeshift bows and arrows, etc.—and he’s the one who will save the day. Small means, indeed. (It’s heartening to see something of a gesture of humility in this story that otherwise leans in the direction of—subtle—hubris.)
Nephi goes up, then, “into the top of the mountain,” in an unmistakable echo of the Exodus story (1 Nephi 16:30), and he comes back with food. And off the company goes again.
A second crisis occurs when Ishmael dies at Nahom. (I’ll leave aside all the archaeological buzz about Nahom, since I assume that’s familiar enough to most readers. If it isn’t, a quick Google search should yield the sort of thing I’m referring to.) On the scene of mourning and its complexity, I think it’s worth reading Alan Goff’s study of the scene. It’s helpful in many ways. And it shows the complex relationship between Nephi’s narrative and the Exodus story that continues here.
What begins with Ishmael’s daughters in mourning quickly becomes murderous desire on the part of Laman and Lemuel (and others), as well as a little speech on their part that outlines their grievances. That speech deserves more attention, I think, than anything else in this second crisis:
Behold, let us slay our father and also our brother Nephi, who hath taken it upon him to be our ruler and our teacher, who are his elder brethren. Now, he saith that the Lord hath talked with him, and also that angels hath ministered unto him. But, behold, we know that he lieth unto us, and he telleth us these things, and he worketh many things by his cunning arts, that he may deceive our eyes, thinking perhaps that he may lead us away into some strange wilderness. And after that he hath led us away, he hath thought to make himself a king and a ruler over us, that he may do with us according to his will and pleasure. (1 Nephi 16:37-38)
There’s a lot going on here. First, given the complexity of the relationship between Lehi and Nephi, the “our father and also our brother Nephi” business is important, especially given that they go on—on Nephi’s report—only to list grievances against Nephi. Second, it’s worth noting the “taken it upon him,” which is clearly meant to be a denial of Nephi’s claim that this has been thrust on him unwillingly. Third, it should be noted that they talk about Nephi’s being “our ruler and our teacher,” making reference directly to 1 Nephi 2:22 (and somewhat less directly to the angel’s confirmation of those words in 1 Nephi 3:29)—marking the explicit rejection at work in these words. Fourth, their talk of angels here makes clear that Nephi is supposed to have, by this point, talked a good deal about his vision, because we have no other references to angels visiting Nephi—and it isn’t difficult to guess that Nephi’s talk about his vision would get his brothers upset. Fifth, the reference to “cunning arts” (witchcraft!) is clearly meant to explain away their own angelic visitation, but its indirection is quite telling. Sixth, finally, it’s of real significance that “ruler and teacher” at the beginning becomes “king and ruler” by the end—ruler remaining in place, but teacher becoming king.
But what is this speech most significant? Because chapter 17 is all about Nephi’s status as (future) king. We’ll have to see that unfolds a little further along. For the moment, just a word on the closure of the narrative of chapter 16. The Lord’s own voice intervenes to end the crisis, and it ends a little too abruptly, really. It’s followed by a few words of summary about the rest of the journey (1 Nephi 17:1-4) which sees the into Bountiful.
So let me turn to chapter 18, which I hope I can tackle in fewer words!
The journey across the ocean begins a bit more ceremoniously than did the journey across the desert. Lehi is still leader when the “voice of the Lord” comes to him (1 Nephi 18:5), and the family then goes into the ship “every one according to his age” (1 Nephi 18:6), thus, it seems, according to a kind of hierarchical ranking. Is Lehi trying to maintain a semblance of peace here, giving Laman and Lemuel pride of place and keeping Nephi in check? Is this a show meant to reestablish Lehi’s dominance? Or is this just the way things work? That brief note, at any rate, raises interesting questions.
Again it’s after “many days” that the trouble starts, this time not a question of scarcity but of abundance: “my brethren and the sons of Ishmael and also their wives began to make themselves merry, insomuch that they began to dance and to sing and to speak with much rudeness,” etc., such that “they did forget by what power they had been brought thither” (1 Nephi 18:9). What’s a stake in this scene? Despite the fanciful portrayal of something like The Book of Mormon Movie, I think it’s best to index this to the writings of Isaiah, rather than to the contemporary dance club. Isaiah has many words to say about drinking parties and the like (“merry” points in the direction of drunkenness), and specifically about how those who engage in the high life specifically do not regard the Lord’s plan (for history), etc.
Nephi, of course, gets involved (speaking “with much soberness” according to verse 10), and that leads to difficulty. The story is plenty familiar—violence ensues, Nephi ends up tied up, the compass ceases to work, a storm arises, and “for the space of three days” they face terrible danger (1 Nephi 18:12). It’s only when death becomes imminent that Laman and Lemuel let Nephi go.
The construction of this narrative is remarkably complex. Laman and Lemuel relent before we get the whole story, and we get a kind of flashback right after Nephi is released and before getting an account of the storm’s end, etc. The elements of this flashback are interesting. The first is a brief mention of Nephi’s having “praise[d] [God] all the day long” (1 Nephi 18:16), which seems excessive (but will be echoed in the Book of Ether, interestingly). That’s just the first element, though. What follows is an account of the attempts to get Laman and Lemuel to relent. The point here is to make clear, it seems, just how stubborn Laman and Lemuel were. But the reported flashback is also very interesting, because it’s that that brings Lehi—and his complex relationship to Nephi—back into the story. Nephi explains:
Now, my father, Lehi, had said many things unto them, and also unto the sons of Ishmael, but behold, they did breathe out much threatenings against any one that should speak for me. And my parents, being stricken in years, and having suffered much grief because of their children, they were brought down—yea, even upon their sickbeds. Because of their grief and much sorrow—and the iniquity of my brethren—they were brought near even to be carried out of this time to meet their God. Yea, their gray hairs were about to be brought down to lie low in the dust—yea, even they were near to be cast with sorrow into a watery grave. (1 Nephi 18:17-18)
Note the echoes of 1 Nephi 16 here. Lehi is again “brought down,” and again it’s a question of “much sorrow.” This time, though, Lehi is “brought down” almost “to lie low in the dust,” not just to be humbled before the Lord. So yet again, while Nephi sings praises in his tied-up condition, Lehi is “brought low” in, not unfaithful murmuring, but supposedly unnecessary fear. Again with the complexity of the relationship between Nephi and Lehi. But all this culminates in a return of Nephi to power, and he steers the ship—no longer a younger son coming into the ship later than the others, but the one in charge.
But all this is getting much longer than I meant it to. I’ll leave off all this and turn to 1 Nephi 17.
1 Nephi 17
There’s a good deal that can be said about the first part of chapter 17—much to say about Nephi’s summary of the journey (with its words about the experience of the women especially), about the fact that a journey that could have taken only a few months took eight years, about the very interesting research that has been done on the location of Bountiful, about Nephi’s conversations with the Lord after “many days” (verse 7), about Nephi’s brief discussion of fire and its allusions to Exodus, etc. I’m going to skip over all this and begin with verses 17-18:
And when my brethren saw that I was about to build a ship, they began to murmur against, saying: Our brother is a fool, for he thinketh that he can build a ship. Yea, and he also thinketh that he can cross these great waters. And thus my brethren did complain against me and were desirous that they might not labor, for they did not believe that I could build a ship, neither would they believe that I were instructed of the Lord.
First thing to note: This marks the first time in this already-long record that Laman and Lemuel “murmur” or “complain” against Nephi. Every other instance of either of these words before this refers to their murmuring or complaining either against Lehi (most commonly) or against the Lord (and once against the Lord through an angel). This is, I think, most significant given all that’s happening in chapters 16 and 18 to set up Nephi’s replacement of Lehi. Indeed, it’s striking that there’s no word here concerning Lehi at all—not until verses 20-22, anyway, where Nephi is simply compared to Lehi, and those verses thus effectively confirm the replacement. Second thing to note, briefly: Laman and Lemuel “did not believe” that Nephi could build a ship, plain and simple, but they “would not believe” that he was instructed of the Lord. The difference between that “did not” and “would not” is, I think, significant. And it helps to make sense of their words to Nephi in the next verse.
Those words come, in a spirit of excitement, in response to Nephi’s sorrow:
And now, when they saw that I began to be sorrowful, they were glad in their heats, insomuch that they did rejoice over me, saying: We knew that ye could not construct a ship, for we knew that ye were lacking in judgment! Wherefore, thou canst not accomplish so great a work! (1 Nephi 17:19)
Notice the heavy emphasis here on the word “knew”: “We knew that ye could not,” and “we knew that ye were lacking.” What they “did not believe” (but not what they “would not believe”) is, in their eyes, confirmed, and they can now express it as knowledge, seeing in Nephi’s sorrow an implicit confession that he’s been making all this up. And this launches Laman and Lemuel, triumphantly, into a little speech—the longest we have from them in Nephi’s record. Here it is, with inserted comments along the way:
And thou art like unto our father, led away by the foolish imaginations of his heart—yea, he hath led us out of the land of Jerusalem. [Here’s the comparison I mentioned a moment ago, and it confirms the replacement motif of these chapters. Let me add now, though: What should we think about the mention of the “heart” here?] And we have wandered in the wilderness for these many years, and our women have toiled, being big with child. And they have borne children in the wilderness, and suffered all things—save it were death. And it would have been better that they had died before they came out of Jerusalem than to have suffered these afflictions. [It’s important, I think, that Laman and Lemuel bring up the women. This launches what will be a pretty consistent Book of Mormon theme: the Lamanites are kinder and more attentive to women than the Nephites are. Of course, this attentiveness is not without its problems here, since Laman and Lemuel are happy to decide whether the women should have died rather than experience what they had!] Behold, these many years we have suffered in the wilderness, which time we might have enjoyed our possessions and the land of our inheritance—yea, and we might have been happy. [This, I think, can be left to speak for itself.] And we know that the people which were in the land of Jerusalem were a righteous people, for they keep the statutes and the judgments of the Lord, and all his commandments according to the law of Moses. Wherefore, we know that they are a righteous people. [That Laman and Lemuel, immediately after mentioning their desire to have enjoyed their possessions in Jerusalem, begin to defend the people of Jerusalem is telling. They’re quite aware of what Nephi will say in response, and they’re preempting his Lehite critique of the people. But it’s important to note that their defense is very particular: the people were righteous because they kept the statutes and judgments of the Lord—the Law of Moses was being kept. What this debate between Nephi and brothers will come down to, then, is at least in part a debate over the status of the Law of Moses. It’s worth mentioning again the emphasis on the word “know.”] And our father hath judged them [Notice that the focus, at this point, is still on Lehi, though all of this is leading up to their too-straightforward criticism of Nephi. All of this, in other words, is a defense of their claim that Lehi is led away by the foolish imaginations of his heart. Interestingly, then, that this comes to its culmination with a claim that Lehi has judged the people of Jerusalem.], and hath led us away because we would hearken unto his word. [The way this is setting up the criticism of Nephi is important. Laman and Lemuel complain against Lehi because he took advantage of his patriarchal status. They’ll let no such thing happen with Nephi.] Yea, and our brother is like unto him. [A pretty weak end to this whole thing. Considering this is their complaint against Nephi, we’ve come to expect it to end with murderous desires, etc. But the point is clearly to say that Nephi, in replacing Lehi, has become another fool. There’s no anger or hatred here, just mockery.] (1 Nephi 17:20-22)
It’s interesting that Nephi concludes all this by saying: “And after this manner of language did my brethren murmur and complain against us.” It began as a complaint just against Nephi, but the heavy focus on Lehi has turned “me” into “us.”
But then comes Nephi’s massive response to all this, and it’s a response that will turn Laman and Lemuel’s mockery into murderous anger (see 1 Nephi 1:18-20, and the questions I’ve raised about it). I’ll take it in parts.
1 Nephi 17:23-31
Nephi begins with the story of Exodus:
Do ye believe that our fathers, which were the children of Israel, would have been led away out of the hands of the Egyptians if they had not hearkened unto the words of the Lord? Yea, do ye suppose that they would have been led out of bondage if the Lord had not commanded Moses that he should lead them out bondage? (1 Nephi 17:23-24)
Nephi seems here to be returning to the comparison he drew in the first verses of 1 Nephi 4—their departure from Jerusalem is a new exodus, with Lehi as Moses and Laban as Pharaoh. Here again Lehi would be Moses, etc. But, perhaps surprising, it turns out that Nephi isn’t drawing any such comparison—at least not explicitly. Perhaps Laman and Lemuel were meant to see parallels, but Nephi never actually draws them out as parallels. Instead he seems to be constructing a carefully rendered genealogy of the present Jerusalem situation. He wants, in short, to establish a kind of common ground so that he call pull the rug out from under his brothers. And the common ground he’s establishing is the story of Moses and its aftermath—the story that itself gives the context of the Law that Laman and Lemuel think is being dutifully kept in Jerusalem.
Importantly, Nephi turns from words like “believe” and “suppose” (in what’s just been quoted) to the word “know” in what immediately follows, thus echoing his brothers’ own complaining speech. Here’s the turn:
Now, ye know that the children of Israel were in bondage, and ye know that they were laden with tasks which were grievious to be borne. Wherefore, ye know that it must needs be a good things for them that they should be brought out of bondage. Now, ye know that Moses was commanded of the Lord to do that great work. And ye know that by his word the waters of the Red Sea was divided hither and thither, and they passed through on dry ground. (1 Nephi 17:25-26)
Still telling the same story, but moving from all talk of belief and supposition to talk of knowledge, what appeared at first to be the beginning of a comparison between the present and the past becomes instead quite clearly a historical recitation—one that all parties to the conversation can agree about. Any hint of comparison fades away, though Laman and Lemuel might still hear echoes of it, given the way it began. It almost seems as if Nephi changes his plan mid-sentence. At any rate, he goes on, mentioning the drowning of the Egyptians (verse 27), the providence of the manna (verse 28), the water coming from the rock (verse 29), the light by night (verse 30), the confounding rebelliousness of Israel despite all these miracles (verse 30), the consequent destructions (verse 31), and so on.
In the middle of this brief recounting of the desert wandering, Nephi begins to build up a somewhat implicit theology of God’s word. Verse 31: “And it came to pass that according to his word he did destroy them. And according to his word he did lead them. And according to his word he did do all things for them. And there was not any thing done save it were by his word.” I just want to note this passage, but not to spend any time on it. I’ll let others do the work of detailing the theology it contains in nuce.
1 Nephi 17:32-42
If verse 31 spells out the beginnings of a word theology, the next several verses spell out in detail and quite explicitly a Nephite land theology. It’s a land theology that deeply orients much of what happens subsequently in the Book of Mormon, and it deserves close attention.
It begins with the crossing of the Jordan:
And after they had crossed the river Jordan, he did make them mighty unto the driving out of the children of the land, yea, unto the scattering them to destruction. (1 Nephi 17:32)
This seems straightforward enough—except perhaps the phrase “the children of the land,” which deserves some attention. But rather than speculate as to its meaning, it’s better just to let the next verses spell out what’s at stake in the word “land.” Nephi goes on:
And now, do ye suppose that the children of this land—which were in the land of promise, which were driven out by our fathers—do ye suppose that they were righteous? Behold, I say unto you: Nay! Do ye suppose that our fathers would have been more choice than they if they had been righteous? I say unto you: Nay! Behold, the Lord esteemeth all flesh in one; he that is righteous is favored of God. But behold, this people had rejected every word of God, and they were ripe in iniquity, and the fullness of the wrath of God was upon them. And the Lord did curse the land against them, and bless it unto our fathers. Yea, he did curse it against them unto their destruction, and he did bless it unto our fathers unto their obtaining power over it. Behold, the Lord hath created the earth that it should be inhabited, and he hath created his children that they should possess it. And he raiseth up a righteous nation and destroyeth the nations of the wicked. And he leadeth away the righteous into precious lands, and the wicked he destroyeth and curseth the land unto them for their sakes. He ruleth high in the heavens—for it is his throne—and this earth is his footstool. (1 Nephi 17:33-39)
There is so much happening in these verses that they make the head spin. At the core of this theology is the double idea that “the Lord hath created the earth that it should be inhabited” as well as “his children that they should possess it.” There’s a kind of reciprocal relation between human beings and the earth here (one that might be seen also in D&C 88, incidentally, though with a very different theological inflection). This double reciprocality—which would seem to be the Lord’s purpose in creation—guides what Nephi presents here. It’s principally a question of blessing and cursing land, of blessing it for “righteous nations” led into a land or of cursing it for a “wicked nation,” a blessing/cursing that seems generally to take the shape of a conquest/destruction, a conquest/destruction that begins with an exodus. (I can’t help but think of how similar this is to the land theology spelled out in the Qur’an.) And then all of this seems to militate against any notion of specialness for the “righteous” nations led away into precious lands—since “the Lord esteemeth all flesh in one,” favoring the righteous because of their righteousness.
Perhaps that all seems simple enough, but it’s all somewhat tensely related to the covenantal themes that underpin everything Nephi has to say in his record. Where does the covenant fit into this land theology? Doesn’t it seem that the destruction of Jerusalem would mark a full end of God’s relationship to them? Why is there an effort to preserve the covenant people? Certainly it would be a stretch to call the Lehites a “righteous nation,” since they’re just a small group of people. So why are they being led to a precious land? The details of Nephi’s theology here don’t seem much to match up with the details of what’s happening with the Lehite exodus. Why is that?
But the point of setting forth this theology becomes clear pretty quickly. It’s not an attempt to explain their own exodus. Rather, it’s an attempt to explain the destruction of Jerusalem generally. That becomes clear especially in verse 43. But in the meanwhile, the tensions only increase. Nephi immediately follows this theological mini-sermon with the assertion that God “loveth them which will have him to be their God,” asserting even that “he loved our fathers,” Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, etc. (1 Nephi 17:40), but then why did God help the Israelites through the wilderness when “they did harden their hearts from time to time, and they did revile against Moses and also against God” (1 Nephi 17:42)? Why were they “nevertheless … led forth by his matchless power into the land of promise” (1 Nephi 17:42)? The answer would seem to be, precisely, that there was a covenant: “he remembered the covenant which he had made” (1 Nephi 17:40). But why did God make such a covenant? And how does it’s making not controvert the very land theology Nephi is setting forth?
Is there an answer or just further complication in the fact that the Israelites were treated with specific punishments to turn them back to God? Verse 41 speaks of the “flying fiery serpents” that were meant to turn the Israelites back to God in the desert, but many simply “perished” because of “the simpleness of the way or the easiness of it.” All of this deserves, I think, a good deal more thought.
But let me get on or I’ll never finish this post!
1 Nephi 17:43-47
Here we come, at last, to the culmination of Nephi’s sermon, where the point of all this becomes clear. The point is to use the land theology to show that those at Jerusalem have no special privilege anymore. If there is nonetheless a covenant that will lead to God’s conserving a remnant, there is no special privilege for the vast majority of Israel. And the result is this:
And now, after all these things, the time has come that they have became wicked—yea, nearly unto ripeness. And I know not but they are at this day about to be destroyed, for I know that the day must surely come that they must be destroyed, save a few only, which shall be led away into captivity. (1 Nephi 17:43)
And then things get personal:
And the Jews also sought to take away [Lehi’s] life. Yea, and ye also have sought to take away his life. Wherefore, ye are murderers in your hearts, and ye are like unto they. … Ye have seen an angel, and he spake unto you. Yea, ye have heard his voice from time to time, and he hath spoken unto you in a still small voice, but ye were past feeling, that ye could not feel his words. Wherefore, he hath spoken unto you like unto the voice of thunder, which did cause the earth to shake as if it were to divide asunder. (1 Nephi 17:44-45).
These are, naturally, fighting words, and they will get Laman and Lemuel more than merely incensed. But note how carefully Nephi addresses the points they raised in their own little sermon at the beginning of this situation. He addresses carefully the situation concerning Lehi. Nephi makes clear that there are much larger contexts in which Lehi’s commandment to leave Jerusalem had come—there was no special privilege for the wicked people in Jerusalem—and he replaces their talk of their father’s apparent foolishness with a discussion of their attempts to kill their father. In response to their talk of Nephi’s cunning devices, he points out that they have seen an angel, heard the Lord’s voice, and even experienced “the voice of thunder,” as it were, and so on. Nephi addresses every one of their points, but now with real theological force behind his words.
But nothing of this keeps Laman and Lemuel from getting angry. The rest of this chapter is, I think, well-known enough, and I’ll let it speak for itself. Their reaction is predictable, and it results in the most fantastic show of divine power on Nephi’s behalf yet. It’s at least worth noting briefly that it is only now—for the first time—that the divine power that appears is shown to Laman and Lemuel to be, as it were, entirely in Nephi’s control. It’s he who shakes them, and that’s why, it seems, they attempt to worship him.
But as I say, I’ll let all this speak for itself and turn to chapters 18-19. (I’ll mention also that there’s a wonderful article on this chapter well worth reading. See Noel Reynolds’s study of it here.)
1 Nephi 18-19
Back in my preliminaries post, I mentioned the fact that 1 Nephi 18 marks the end of the first of four sequences of Nephi’s record. It marks, as it were, the end of the creation story, the story of the creation of the Lehites in a new world. This is especially clear from the last verses of chapter 18, where a series of allusions to Genesis 1 can be found:
(1) The groups sails through the waters (verse 23).
(2) Out of those waters emerges “the land” (verse 23).
(3) The group then plants seeds, which “did grow exceedingly” (verse 24).
(4) They then find “all manner of wild animals” (verse 25).
(5) Finally, they are put in charge of these animals, since they “were for the use of man” (verse 25).
This little series of occurrences and discoveries follows the pattern of the creation story, and right at the end of the Lehite creation story, as if all this were meant to confirm that the creation story is coming to an end. That is, I think, rather clear.
But there’s one problem with this reading. 1 Nephi 18 isn’t a self-contained chapter. Chapter V of the original Book of Mormon stretches from 1 Nephi 16:1 to 1 Nephi 19:21, such that 1 Nephi 18 isn’t the end of anything, it seems. I think there are important explanations for all of this, but I’m not sure how much time I want to spend detailing them. I’ll provide at least an outline.
I’ve been playing for some time with the possibility that Nephi originally intended only to write what is now 1 Nephi 1-18 (or so). There are a few different indications of this. I’ve mentioned in previous posts that Nephi seems only gradually to have recognized that he was himself writing what would eventually be the first installment in the record that would emerge in the last days as the Book of Mormon. When he began writing, however, he seems not to have known this. His whole purpose, according to the several asides to be found in 1 Nephi 1:1-3; 1 Nephi 1:16-17; 1 Nephi 6; and 1 Nephi 9, was principally to make known to his people what he had seen in vision (in what is recorded in 1 Nephi 11-14). Having presented that and provided a basic account of the journey to the New World, Nephi could easily have seen his project as complete. Further, it’s of real interest that the superscription, written by Nephi, that appears at the beginning of First Nephi describes only the story up through chapter 18. There is no description there at all of what follows. From these (and some other) details, I think it’s worth playing with the possibility that Nephi changed his project drastically after he had finished writing 1 Nephi 1-18. And that may explain the somewhat tortured transition from chapter 18 to chapter 19.
But let me leave all this off here and just address a few points about the transition. The moment Nephi is done recounting the creation story, he provides what is unquestionably the most important passage about the organization of the record. It seems it’s only with 1 Nephi 19:1-6 that Nephi finally began to see what he was doing with his record. Only there, at any rate, does he provide an outline of the whole of his record in terms of its several parts. (Another point of evidence for a change in plans, I think.) I don’t want to write an excessively long commentary on those verses, but I think they’re well worth attending to. Here they are, with a running commentary:
And it came to pass that the Lordd commanded me, wherefore I did make plates of ore that I might engraven upon them the record of my people. And upon the plates which I made, I did engraven the record of my father, and also our journeyings in the wilderness, and the prophecies of my father. And also many of mine own prophecies have I engraven upon them. (1 Nephi 19:1)
First things first, Nephi tells us again about the other record he’s written. We learned about it in 1 Nephi 9, but now he reports the actual occasion on which he produced that record, and gives us a clearer sense of its contents: Lehi’s record, a journal of the journey to the New World, some of Lehi’s prophecies, and some of Nephi’s own prophecies. But then Nephi goes on:
And I knew not at that time which I made them that I should be commanded of the Lord to make these plates. Wherefore, the record of my father, and the genealogy of his forefathers, and the more part of all our proceedings in the wilderness are engraven upon those first plates, of which I have spoken. Wherefore the things which transpired before that I made these plates are of a truth more particularly made mention upon the first plates. (1 Nephi 19:2)
This is, I think, relatively straightforward. The other plates have a more particular account of everything that’s taken place before the production of the plates we’re actually reading. And now Nephi introduces the plates we’re reading:
And after that I made these plates by way of commandment, I, Nephi, received a commandment that the ministry and the prophecies—the more plain and precious parts of them—should be written upon these plates, and that the things which were written should be kept for the instruction of my people, which should possess the land, and also for other wise purposes, which purposes are known unto the Lord. (1 Nephi 19:3)
A couple things happen here. First, Nephi uses the phrase “the more plain and precious parts of them,” which is of real importance. Those words link up Nephi’s small plates project with his vision in 1 Nephi 11-14, suggesting that this is the first clue Nephi had that what he was producing would eventually have a distinct relationship to the record that would have to be created, buried, and so on. But so far as Nephi knows at this point, the small plates record was meant to be read by his people—“for the instruction of my people”—and every other purpose for the record is “known unto the Lord,” not to Nephi. Nephi goes on:
Wherefore, I, Nephi, did make a record upon the other plates, which gives an account—or which gives a greater account—of the wars and contentions and destructions of my people. And now, this have I done, and commanded my people that they should do after that I was gone, and that these plates should be handed down from one generation to another, or from one prophet to another, until further commandments of the Lord. (1 Nephi 19:4)
Here we get a bit more about the other record, as well as Nephi’s indication that the other record will be passed down, etc. That’s clear, I think. And now comes the crucial moment:
And an account of my making these plates shall be given hereafter. (1 Nephi 19:5a)
It’s crucial to recognize that “these plates” are here, as always, the plates we’re reading, the small plates. Note what Nephi says here: there will be given, in the record we’re reading, an account of the physical production of the small plates. We’ve just read an account of the physical production of the large plates, but we’ll have to wait until later for the actual account of the making of the small plates. Why is that important? Because Nephi goes on to say:
And then, behold, I proceed according to that which I have spoken. (1 Nephi 19:5b)
This is crucial. When is then? Only after the account of the physical production of the small plates appears in the record. And what is to be found there? Quite clearly, the things Nephi’s been talking about—the inclusion of the plain and precious, the inclusion of the ministry and the prophecies, etc. All of that is to be found in Nephi’s record only after the account of the physical production of the small plates. And where is that? The account of the making of the small plates is to be found in the last verses of 2 Nephi 5. The upshot, then, is that the real core of Nephi’s record is to be found in what begins with 2 Nephi 6. And that “real core” comes to an end with 2 Nephi 30, as is clear from the closure of the last verse of that chapter. In short, then, 2 Nephi 6-30 not only makes up what before I called the “atonement” portion of Nephi’s record, it’s the thing Nephi had specifically been commanded to produce! Everything else in his record, everything before 2 Nephi 6, is something like padding or helpful contextualization. Why would Nephi do such a thing? He explains:
And this I do that the more sacred things may be kept for the knowledge of my people. (1 Nephi 19:5c)
There’s a lot going on in this little claim. But let’s take it a bit at a time. First, Nephi gives 2 Nephi 6-30 a name: “the more sacred things.” That’s what we’ll be getting in those culminating chapters, at the heart of which are to be found the Isaiah chapters proper. That’s interesting and crucial. To miss the importance of Isaiah in Nephi’s writings is entirely to miss the point of Nephi’s record. But there’s more being said here than just this. Nephi tells us that he adds all this extra material to the more sacred things so that that real core of the record “may be kept for the knowledge of my people.” It seems that without the other, contextualizing material, Nephi fears there would be a failure to keep the record. That deserves a lot of thought, though I can’t take the space to work on here. There’s a lot going on here. (Clues, I think, can be found in the Reynolds piece I linked to in the last section.) But it’s worth noting that Nephi is as nervous as we are about padding the more sacred with apparently uncommanded material:
Nevertheless, I do not write any thing upon plates save it be that I think it be sacred. (1 Nephi 19:6a)
Nephi here begins to defend himself against the accusations he anticipates us having. Everything in this record is sacred; it’s just that 2 Nephi 6-30 is the more sacred part of the record. The atonement part is the crucial thing, what the Lord wanted him to preserve. The rest that’s been added (creation, fall, veil) is all helpful for situating that core part of the record, and so all of it, too, is sacred, but sacred in a derivative sense. But is this kind of move really justifiable?
And now if I do err, even did they err of old. Not that I would excuse myself because of other men, but because of the weakness which is in me according to the flesh, I would excuse myself. (1 Nephi 19:6b)
Here we have Nephi’s actual apology. If this is a mistake, he’s not along in it. Others before him have produced records that follow his same pattern (creation, fall, atonement, veil?) by contextualizing the most sacred part of the record with narratives that give the really crucial part of the record to be kept. It isn’t difficult to guess what Nephi’s referring to. The Law of Moses—contained principally in Exodus and Leviticus—is contained in a narrative shell, detailed principally in Genesis and Numbers. Nephi believes he’s following scriptural precedent. Of course, he tries to explain that that’s not really an excuse. But all human beings produce things in this way because they’re all of them weak.
From this point, Nephi turns directly to the brass plates, caught up in a mini-sermon on the Christ. I’ll let it speak for itself for my purposes here. I want to get on to what’s happening more generally in 1 Nephi 19-22. I hope, in the meanwhile, that I’ve said something coherent about the larger structure of Nephi’s record, and shown that there’s something quite important happening in the transition from 1 Nephi 18 to 1 Nephi 19. The creation story comes to a close, and Nephi finally tells us—or finally learns or finally decides—about the structure of his larger record. All that launches us into the fall stretch of Nephi’s record, from 1 Nephi 19 to 2 Nephi 5, during which we’ll have a lot to learn.
1 Nephi 19-22
The last part of 1 Nephi 19 makes clear what drives Nephi’s interest in producing a longer record than 1 Nephi 1-18. He’s interested in bringing Isaiah into this story. He’s already made clear, back in 1 Nephi 15, that Isaiah is the key to making sense of his vision in 1 Nephi 11-14. But he’s provided his readers with nothing except that claim. The remainder of the record will be fully saturated by Isaiah, and Nephi seems to be doing all this quite clearly in order to help his readers make sense of his vision, of its covenantal stakes, and of what it has to say about Old Testament theology. In order to get anywhere with anything after 1 Nephi 1-18, it’s crucial to pay close and real attention to Isaiah.
So let me begin what will be a kind of commentary on Nephi’s first lengthy Isaiah quotation. Isaiah 48-49 is quoted in 1 Nephi 20-21, and Nephi offers a kind of commentary on it in 1 Nephi 22. To get this started, I want to look briefly at parts of 1 Nephi 19 and 1 Nephi 22 in order to contextualize Nephi’s largely implicit interpretation. I’ll take up in the next section a handful of comments on Isaiah’s writings more directly.
1 Nephi 19
The bulk of 1 Nephi 19 (verses 8-17) consists of a series of quotations from the brass plates, as well as from “the angel” (the angel of the vision of 1 Nephi 11-14?), strung together to spell out a basic Christology. I’ll leave study of the actual contents of that weaving for another time, and just note that it culminates with a quotation of Isaiah—with what appears to be the only quotation of Isaiah in the chapter. It comes, at any rate, in verse 17 (“all the earth shall see the salvation of the Lord,” etc.). What follows immediately after that, and what made up the conclusion to the original Chapter V (but now forms verses 18-21), is a kind of general summary on Nephi’s part of his own relationship to “prophets of old.” I’ll also leave study of this for another time so that I can focus on the last part of chapter 19, what was originally the first part of Chapter VI, Nephi’s introduction to Isaiah.
Here’s the passage in its entirety, now making up 1 Nephi 19:22-24:
Now it came to pass that I, Nephi, did teach my brethren these things. And it came to pass that I did read many things to them which were engraven upon the plates of brass, that they might know concerning the doings of the Lord in other lands, among people of old. And I did read many things unto them which were in the books of Moses. But that I might more fully persuade them to believe in the Lord their Redeemer, wherefore, I did read unto them that which was written by the prophet Isaiah—for I did liken all scriptures unto us, that it might be for our profit and learning. Wherefore, I spake unto them, saying: Hear ye the words of the prophet, ye which are a remnant of the house of Israel, a branch which have been broken off. Hear ye the words of the prophet, which was written unto all the house of Israel, and liken it unto yourselves, that ye may have hope as well as your brethren, from whom ye have been broken off. For after this manner hath the prophet written … .
There’s much to talk about here.
First, I think the original chapter breaks are interpretively important here. Reading 1 Nephi 19 as a whole, one gets the sense that the brass plates readings that make up its bulk were part of a sermon given to Laman and Lemuel, though we only discover that in verse 22. But when the original chapter breaks are restored, we get a different sense. It now appears that Nephi gives us a kind of mini-sermon, then tells us the sort of relationship he has to the brass plates in general, and then tells us that it was this sort of thing that he taught to his brothers in general. The only sermon actually given to Laman and Lemuel, it seems, is the one beginning with the last verses of 1 Nephi 19 (the first verses of Chapter VI).
Second, from the beginning of this passage, Nephi’s emphasis is on getting his brothers to “know concerning the doings of the Lord in other lands, among people of old.” This is an interesting point, and one we would do well to pay attention to. The crucial question, it seems to me, is this: Why is there no talk of the covenant here? Why, that is, does Nephi put his emphasis simply on “other lands” and “people of old,” rather than on the land of Israel and the covenant people of their own lineage? Why this emphasis on foreignness and temporal distance? I don’t know that I’ve got an answer to that question, but I think it’s worth thinking about.
Third, we get a sense for what Nephi considers to be the best of the best of the brass plates: “the books of Moses” and “that which was written by the prophet Isaiah”—the Law and, from among the Prophets, the prophet. This is an interesting point, and one well worth considering. There’s much to say about Nephi’s relationship to these two sources—indeed, I’ve just finished writing a book about it!—but I can’t get into all the details here. Suffice it to say that Nephi seems to have discovered in Isaiah his way of making sense of the Law.
Fourth, it’s crucial to read very carefully what Nephi says about Isaiah here: it was to “more fully persuade them to believe in the Lord their Redeemer” that he took up Isaiah with his brothers. Latter-day Saints rather generally take this—without, I think, generally thinking much about it—to indicate that Isaiah has a lot to say about Jesus Christ, about His life and ministry, about His death and atonement, etc. I don’t think that’s at all what Nephi’s saying. He speaks not of the Messiah, nor of the Lamb of God, nor of the Savior. He speaks, rather, of the Lord, the Redeemer. It seems to me rather obvious that what Nephi uses Isaiah to clear up is the redemption of Israel. His interest in Isaiah is principally an interest in making sense of the Lord’s relationship to the covenant people. This becomes, I think, quite clear in the next parts of the passage quoted above.
Fifth, Nephi speaks of likening. To be quite frank, I think we’ve entirely misunderstood likening, as Nephi understands it. We take Nephi to mean something like “application of scripture to our everyday lives.” Nephi means something much more complex than that. A quick glance at all the instances of “liken” in Nephi’s writings is instructive (1 Nephi 19:23, 24; 2 Nephi 6:5; 11:2, 8). In every case, first of all, it is a whole people to which scripture is likened, not a single person in his or her experience. Moreover, it is, for Nephi, always Isaiah that is in question when likening is at work—not scripture generally. Still more, likening is always clearly tied to the covenant: it is because Isaiah wrote to all Israel, and because the people doing the likening are a part of Israel, that likening can be undertaken (this is clear, incidentally, in the passage quoted above, in what is now verse 24). Finally, Nephi puts on display what he means by likening at great length in 2 Nephi 26-27 (and elsewhere, as does Jacob in 2 Nephi 6-10), and it’s as clear as can be that likening is not personal application of the text. What, then, is likening? It is to see in the prophet’s words to Israel the general shape of the Lord’s historical dealings with the covenant people, and to take that general shape as a kind of template for making sense of other periods in Israel’s history. In other words, to liken Isaiah is to take Isaiah not to be an apocalyptic prophet like Nephi, a prophet who sees everything that’s going to happen way in advance, but to take him to be a prophet in a very particular time and place, with a very specific message to a very specific people—but a message that, in its context, gives us to understand how God deals with the covenant people in general. This passage sets us the task not of getting out of scripture into practical matters as quickly as possible, but rather of getting seriously to work on making sense of Isaiah if we hope ever to understand the stakes of the covenant, or of being the covenant people of the Lord. Nephi seems to have spent much more time sorting out the implications of Isaiah than we do. I hope I’ll be able to show some evidence of that, in part in this post (in what remains to follow), but more profoundly in my posts on the role of Isaiah in Second Nephi.
Sixth, all that’s just been said about likening is made quite clear in the last part of the quotation. Nephi wants his brothers to “hear … the words of the prophet” because they were “written unto all the house of Israel,” and his brothers “are a remnant of the house of Israel.” But what might be missed here is the importance of this reference to the “remnant.” In my last post, I spent a little time saying a few introductory things about this theme of the remnant in Nephi. Here Nephi is using the word quite directly in trying to make sense of Isaiah. I suspect that it was precisely the angel’s discussions of the remnant that turned Nephi’s attention to Isaiah. As any good Isaiah scholar will tell you, it was Isaiah who brought the Old Testament’s remnant theology to its theological summit. If Nephi wanted to make sense of what the angel had told him about the remnant, it was to Isaiah he would have to have turned. Obviously, I’ll have a good deal more to say about Isaiah when I come to chapters 20 and 21 below. For the moment, I’ll leave this point off.
I want to turn, now, to 1 Nephi 22, just briefly, and then get on to Isaiah.
1 Nephi 22
This chapter was a stand-alone chapter (Chapter VII) in the original Book of Mormon. It seems to have functioned, in that sense, in something like the manner that what is now 1 Nephi 15 (and then Chapter IV) functioned—as Nephi’s explanatory sermon to his brothers. This is, I think, a crucial structural point. Let me see if I can’t make sense of the structure of the whole of the second half of First Nephi now.
It’ll be remembered that First Nephi comes in two parts. The first part comes to a close with 1 Nephi 9, and it was made up originally of two chapters: Chapter I (1 Nephi 1-5) and Chapter II (1 Nephi 6-9). In previous posts, I’ve tried to make some sense of those chapter breaks and how they orient us to the material in those chapters in a very specific way—each of them beginning and ending with talk of books and records. The first half of First Nephi comes to a close when Nephi turns from abridging the record of his father to abridging his own record, a transition explicitly noted in the first verses of 1 Nephi 10. The second half of First Nephi, then, makes up 1 Nephi 10-22. In the original Book of Mormon, it comes in the shape of five distinct chapters:
Chapter III – 1 Nephi 10-14
Chapter IV – 1 Nephi 15
Chapter V – 1 Nephi 16 – 1 Nephi 19:21
Chapter VI – 1 Nephi 19:22 – 1 Nephi 21
Chapter VII – 1 Nephi 22
I don’t think it’s too difficult to see the significance of these breaks, taken together. 1 Nephi 15 and 1 Nephi 22 are both explanatory sermons delivered to Laman and Lemuel by Nephi. The former (Chapter IV) is his explanation of Lehi’s dream and sermon, given through the lens of his own visionary experience (Chapter III); the latter (Chapter VII) is his explanation of the writings of Isaiah, given through his method of likening (Chapter VI). Thus, Chapter IV is to Chapter III as Chapter VII is to Chapter VI. Separating these two chunks of text (Chapters III-IV and Chapters VI-VII respectively) is Chapter V, the story of the journey from the Old to the New World, and culminating in Nephi’s mini-sermon about Christology (in what is now 1 Nephi 19). Chapter V seems, as it were, to anchor what is otherwise here principally a collection of Nephi’s sermonizing on things he’s experienced in vision or read in scripture.
Importantly, the parallel between Chapters III-IV and Chapters VI-VII sets up what will be the burden of Second Nephi. In the whole of his second book, Nephi’s focus will be on weaving together the writings of Isaiah with his own prophetic experience in 1 Nephi 11-14. Here the parallel begins to set that up. We have Nephi’s explanation of his vision, and then Nephi’s explanation of Isaiah. The distance kept between these two efforts (by Chapter V) will be collapsed beginning after 2 Nephi 5, and we’ll begin to see how the work of likening unfolds—that is, as an attempt to use Isaiah as a template for making sense of the covenantal story glimpsed in Nephi’s visionary experience, as well as as an attempt to use Nephi’s visionary experience in order to make sense of the writings of Isaiah.
All of that said, what might be said about 1 Nephi 22 itself, in terms of content?
I think it’s important that it begins with a return to the last theme of 1 Nephi 15. Laman and Lemuel are again asking about the temporal versus the spiritual. (See again my previous post.) And Nephi’s answer is the same as before: “the things of which I have read are things pertaining to things both temporal and spiritual” (1 Nephi 22:3). Nephi then goes on to provide a kind of basic vision of the whole future history of Israel—culled, without doubt, from his own visionary experience. But he now weaves it into the writings of Isaiah as he has just quoted them (as in, to take the best example, verses 7-8).
Such is the basic content. I’ll leave its perusal for another time, so that I can give due attention to Isaiah in the next part. But I do want to mention, yet again, the emphasis on covenant here. Even a cursory reading of 1 Nephi 22 should alert every reader to the saturation of this theme. As in 1 Nephi 15, Nephi is bringing out this theme and quoting the promise to Abraham, etc. None of this should be missed. As much as we want to ignore the covenant and just talk about our everyday lives, or about the inspiring events of Christ’s life, there is a heavy focus on the covenant, and Nephi seems to be convinced that it is among the most important of the plain and precious things this book is meant to focus us on.
But I turn, finally, to Isaiah.
Much has been written on Isaiah in the Book of Mormon—most of it, I fear, without much understanding. The problem is not so much that Isaiah’s own writings have been misunderstood, though I think that’s also true often enough. The problem is that those writing on Isaiah in the Book of Mormon have paid far too little attention to what Nephi is doing with Isaiah in general. We’re too quick to move right to the first verses of 2 Nephi 25, generate a list of “keys” to reading Isaiah in general, and then leave off the whole matter altogether. Nephi, though, works very carefully with Isaiah, and we have to be as careful with him as Nephi is. If we can get seriously to work not just on what Isaiah means, but also on what Nephi does with Isaiah, we’ll have gotten somewhere.
I have to do a good bit of background work before we can even say a word about the content of 1 Nephi 20-21/Isaiah 48-49. I apologize for how roundabout this will all seem.
First Isaiah, Second Isaiah
For a whole host of—generally good—reasons, Latter-day Saints have been skittish, to say the least, about good biblical scholarship on Isaiah. What reasons? Well, the first and probably the most important is the simple fact that biblical scholars more or less universally break the Book of Isaiah up into the work of a few different parts and then assign some of those parts—parts that appear in the Book of Mormon—to a time that post-dates the departure of the Lehites from Jerusalem. If some of Isaiah wasn’t even written when Nephi retrieved the brass plates from Jerusalem, then there would seem to be some serious problems for the historicity of the Book of Mormon.
Frankly, I really don’t care about that problem myself. There are, I think, a whole host of ways of solving that problem, none very good or strong or appealing, but where there’s a will, there’s a way. For my own part, I have no real doubts about the Book of Mormon’s historicity, so I don’t much bother with the evidence for or against it. Whether all that the Book of Mormon actually quotes of Isaiah was written before the exile, or whether the Lord included later Isaiah material in the Book of Mormon when He told Joseph what to dictate or whatever—the material is there, and we’re meant to grapple with it. At any rate, I don’t see any particular reason to shun the excellent interpretive work that scholars have done on Isaiah, simply because we’re half-neurotic about the truth of this true book.
To take up with biblical scholars for a bit, then, it’s more or less universally agreed among critics that the Book of Isaiah is made up of two or three distinct “books” that have all been woven into a single canonical whole. Traditionally, these are called First Isaiah (Isaiah 1-39), Second Isaiah (Isaiah 40-55), and Third Isaiah (Isaiah 56-66). These distinctions are, I hope to show, crucial to the Book of Mormon’s use of Isaiah. First, it’s certainly of significance that not a single word of Third Isaiah appears in the Book of Mormon. The Nephites would seem to have been entirely unaware of Third Isaiah, and all their quotations come from First and Second Isaiah. But how are those quotations deployed?
There’s something curiously systematic about the use of Isaiah in the Book of Mormon. From First Isaiah, we have the massive series of Isaiah chapters (Isaiah 2-14 in 2 Nephi 12-24) and a single, unannounced chapter also used by Nephi (Isaiah 29 in 2 Nephi 26-27). From Second Isaiah, we have the whole of Isaiah 48-54, in order, but broken up into chunks (Isaiah 48-49 in 1 Nephi 20-21; Isaiah 50-51 in 2 Nephi 7-8; Isaiah 52-53 in Mosiah 12-16; and Isaiah 54 in 3 Nephi 22). A few initial patterns are immediately obvious. First Isaiah appears only in Nephi’s writings. Only he seems to have been interested in it. Second Isaiah appears throughout the Book of Mormon, in bits and pieces, but entirely in order, as if each author picks up where the last left off. The trajectory of Second Isaiah quotations makes up something like the backbone of the Book of Mormon, though a backbone with some real complications (which I’ve written about here). But all this is only the beginning.
The relationship between First and Second Isaiah in themselves deserves real attention. I can’t really spell out the details of any arguments here (though I entirely recommend Edgar Conrad’s little book, Reading Isaiah, as a good place to start!), so I’ll just present some unjustified conclusions. First Isaiah is built around two texts that detail the events that turned Isaiah’s attention from his own day to an undefined future, but a future in which a righteous remnant would be prepared to receive the teachings he was called to deliver to the people of his own time, which were being entirely rejected. In response to this rejection-and-anticipation, Isaiah took to writing and sealing up his record to be kept for that later generation—a later generation that would realize the universalization of the covenant (bringing the Gentiles into the covenant). The central texts in First Isaiah dedicated to developing this theme are those that Nephi borrows: Isaiah 6-8 and Isaiah 29. And it isn’t surprising that Nephi was interested in specifically this theme in Isaiah, given what he (Nephi) had seen in his own apocalyptic vision: the coming forth of a sealed book in the last days, a book that would be directed specifically to a remnant who would mark the fulfillment of the Abrahamic covenant, bringing even the Gentiles into that covenant. So soon as Nephi had seen his vision, he was interested in Isaiah.
Second Isaiah, on the most productive reading, functions canonically as an outline of the anticipated response, on the part of the future remnant, to the sealed record. It thus begins with a reworking (Isaiah 40) of Isaiah’s call to prophecy (Isaiah 6) that turns on a command to “Read!” (usually translated “Cry!”). Second Isaiah is thus a kind of apocalyptic projection, an anticipation of the remnant community responding to Isaiah’s sealed book, and what is set in motion is an eschatological exodus that brings scattered Israel back together in their lands of promise, coupled with the Gentiles who have helped them to get there. The central texts detailing all this in Second Isaiah are to be found in Isaiah 49-55, and the culminating chapter of the sequence that marks the relationship between First and Second Isaiah is to be found in Isaiah 48. All these chapters are grouped together in the trajectory that I’ve said makes up the backbone of the Book of Mormon. It isn’t difficult to see why Nephi was interested in them: he saw in them an outline of what would eventually happen to whatever remnant responded to a sealed text, and so he saw in them a kind of template for making sense of the events he had foreseen in the last days in his own vision.
Nephi’s care in selecting what he quotes of Isaiah makes quite clear to me that he had read Isaiah carefully, and that he drew a distinction between the First Isaiah task of producing a sealed record and the Second Isaiah response to that record—both of which themes were crucial to what he wanted to think about in making sense of his apocalyptic vision. Nephi’s focus is, quite profoundly, on how Isaiah’s complex, double record (First and Second Isaiah) can help to make sense of what he has seen—both of what he has seen as a kind of ancient precursor to apostasy (1 Nephi 11-12) and of what he has seen as the final events surrounding the fulfillment of the covenant (1 Nephi 13-14). Isaiah is the key to everything in Nephi.
All of that just by way of introduction. This post is long enough, but I’d like to say just a couple of words about 1 Nephi 20-21 in terms of content, just a couple words to make concrete what I’ve just been spelling out in rather general and perhaps abstract terms.
1 Nephi 20 records Isaiah 48, which all commentators recognize to be the culmination of Isaiah 40-48. It is, further, generally remarked to be the harshest of Isaiah’s condemnations in those chapters. It’s a kind of negative culmination, a harsh denunciation—exactly the sort of thing Nephi likely thought his brothers needed to hear. It also in a handful of important ways (textual echoes, etc.) marks a close relationship with Isaiah 40, which, as I discussed briefly a couple of posts ago, plays a central role in 1 Nephi 10. There is, I think, a crucial tie being made here between Isaiah 40 and 48 at the beginning and end of the second part of First Nephi. At any rate, Nephi’s choice to begin with Isaiah 48 is complex. In a single gesture, it registers (1) the necessary harshness of speaking against sin toward which Nephi is justifiably inclined at this point in speaking with his brothers, (2) a profound connection with the first (subtle) reference to Isaiah in Nephi’s record (in 1 Nephi 10), (3) the most explicit comments from Isaiah’s writings concerning the complex relationship between First Isaiah (what Isaiah 48 consistently calls “the former things”) and Second Isaiah (“new things”), and (4) the exodus theme that will be crucial in every quotation from Second Isaiah.
That, for the moment, should be enough of a guide to Isaiah 48 to help someone struggling to make sense of it. I’d also recommend, of course, taking a look at a modern translation (I prefer the NRSV) or glancing through a decent commentary.
But let me turn to 1 Nephi 21, the quotation of Isaiah 49. I’ve already noted that this chapter is generally understood to be the opening of a stretch that proceeds through Isaiah 55 (the end of Second Isaiah). It thus introduces all the themes that will become the central focus of the Second Isaiah texts that appear here and there through the rest of the Book of Mormon. It begins with one of the several famous “servant songs” (which culminate in Isaiah 53), in which, it’s important to note, Nephi doesn’t seem to see anything Christological at work (though Abinadi will—there’s one of those complications I mentioned earlier and that I take up in the linked-to article on Isaiah in the Book of Mormon more generally). The point of the servant song that opens Isaiah 49, though, is the servant’s struggle with the Lord—the servant’s worry that fidelity to the Lord has brought only sorrow and misery and the Lord’s reorientation of the servitude from merely Israel to the Gentiles as well (see verses 1-6). The rest of the chapter is dedicated to the intertwining relationship between Israel and the Gentiles, the eschatological events in which the Gentiles will bring Israel back to the land that believes it has been entirely forsaken by the Lord. Those themes are, I think, among the ones Latter-day Saints are most comfortable with, and so I don’t know that they need that much comment.
And that, at any rate, should be enough of a guide to Isaiah 49 to help someone struggling to make sense of it. Again I’d recommend the same outside resources. But for now I think it should be at least basically possible to get a clear sense of what’s going on when these chapters are read.
In future posts dealing with Isaiah texts, I’ll be providing more detailed commentary.
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