Book of Mormon Lesson #18: “God Himself Shall Redeem His People,” Mosiah 12-17
Posted by joespencer on April 30, 2012
We are saddled with the task of sorting out the whole of Abinadi’s speech in a single lesson. That’s devastatingly difficult, particularly because Abinadi’s speech marks the—and I mean the—turning point in the history of the Nephites, and in about a dozen ways. We’ve got to look very carefully at those details. That’s all the more difficult, given that the historical setting still needs some serious work, even after last week’s lesson and associated notes, and given that we’ve also got to do some serious theological work on the text as we work through it. There’s too much to be done on Abinadi’s speech.
But we’ll get started and see what we can’t do here.
Abinadi’s Return (Mosiah 12:1-17)
At the end of chapter 11 (on this, see the discussion at the end of my last post), Abinadi appeared among Noah’s people with a warning: unless there was repentance, the people would end up in bondage to their enemies. We find out in the first verse of chapter 12 that two years have passed since that message was delivered. And now Abinadi comes back into town “in disguise, that they knew him not” (Mosiah 12:1). (The people had, remember, been seeking “from that time [from the time of Noah's response to Abinadi's prophecies] forward to take him,” according to Mosiah 11:29.) And again he goes about the work of prophesying.
His first words, according to the report, have to do with the people’s failure to repent in response to his last message:
Thus hath the Lord commanded me, saying: Abinadi, go and prophesy unto this people, for they have hardened their hearts against my words. They have repented not of their evil doings. Therefore, I will visit them in my anger. Yea, in my fierce anger will I visit them in their iniquities and abominations. Yea, woe be unto this generation! (Mosiah 12:1-2)
The last message was originally conditional: if the people would repent, they would be fine; but if they wouldn’t, they would end up in bondage. Now, because they haven’t repented, the conditionality has been removed, and the people will end up in bondage. Abinadi explains this as he goes on:
And the Lord said unto me: Stretch forth thy hand and prophesy, saying: Thus saith the Lord: It shall come to pass that this generation, because of their iniquities, shall be brought into bondage and shall be smitten on the cheek, yea, and shall be driven by men and shall be slain. And the vultures of the air and the dogs—yea, and the wild beasts—shall devour their flesh. And it shall come to pass that the life of king Noah shall be valued even as a garment in a hot furnace, for he shall know that I am the Lord. And it shall come to pass that I will smite this my people with sore afflictions, yea, with famine and with pestilence. And I will cause that they shall have burdens lashed upon their backs, and they shall be driven before like a dumb ass. And it shall to pass that I will send forth hail among them, and it shall smite them. And they shall also be smitten with the east wind. And insects shall pester their land also, and devour their grain. And they shall be smitten with a great pestilence. And all this will I do because of their iniquities and abominations. (Mosiah 12:2-7)
There’s a good deal more to this announcement than there was to the warning in chapter 11—at least as reported. In chapter 11 there was talk of bondage. Now there’s talk of bondage, yes, but also of people dying in the course of that subjection—and in particular of Noah’s presumably dying. There’s also talk now, and wasn’t before, of famine and pestilence: hail and the east wind and insects, all destroying the crops. Given Noah’s response at the end of chapter 11 (he took Abinadi to be a political subversive), there may be reason to suspect that Abinadi was indeed saying this sort of thing before. At any rate, it’s being said now.
And Abinadi goes on, now introducing a new conditional:
And it shall come to pass that, except they repent, I will utterly destroy them from off the face of the earth. (Mosiah 12:8)
The new conditional: if there is repentance, they will survive; if not, absolute destruction. And then some details about that destruction, were it to happen:
Yet they shall leave a record behind them, and I will preserve them for other nations which shall possess the land. Yea, even this will I do that I may discover the abominations of this people to other nations. (Mosiah 12:8)
What’s to be made of this? Is it actually a prophecy about the whole of the Nephite nation suddenly? Or is it a prophecy merely about Noah’s people? Is the idea that, were the Nephite colony-kingdom in the land of Nephi to be destroyed according to Abinadi’s prophecy, they would leave a record behind that the Lamanites, or perhaps the remainder of the Nephites, or other groups perhaps, could find and learn from? Or did Abinadi prophesy concerning the whole of the Nephites in this connection, but the editors before Mormon didn’t have enough of a long-term grasp of Nephite history and so understood it to apply just to the people of Noah? Or what?
At any rate, the people capture Abinadi and take him before the king. Note how they summarize his prophecy:
Behold, we have brought a man before thee which has prophesied evil concerning thy people, and saith that God will destroy them. And he also prophesieth evil concerning thy life, and saith that thy life shall be as a garment in a furnace of fire. And again, he saith that thou shall be as a stalk, even as a dry stalk of the field, which is ran over by the beasts and trodden under foot. And again, he saith thou shalt be as the blossoms of a thistle, which when it is fully ripe, if the wind bloweth, it is driven forth upon the face of the land. And he pretendeth the Lord hath spoken it. And he saith all this shall come upon thee except thou repent—and this because of thine iniquities. (Mosiah 12:9-12)
First, note that there is no talk here at all of the majority of the no-longer-conditional conditional; there’s no mention whatsoever of the secured bondage to the Nephites’ enemies, nor of the famine, etc., that will accompany it. As regards the people, all that’s mentioned is the new conditional, but it’s presented here as if it weren’t a conditional: “God will destroy them.” Second, from the no-longer-conditional conditional, all that’s mentioned is the threat concerning Noah, which Abinadi has presented as no longer conditional, but it’s presented to Noah (with a few elaborations, it seems) as a conditional: “all this shall come upon thee except thou repent.”
This is most curious. What Abinadi presents as (now) conditional, the people represent as unconditional; and what Abinadi presents as (now) unconditional, the people represent as conditional. What’s to be made of that?
Further, what’s to be made of the expansions and contractions of Abinadi’s message as it has been reported to us? There’s brief mention of the prophecies against the people, but it’s all reduced to a single message of destruction. There’s no talk of bondage or famine, and there’s no talk of a record being left behind. And then there’s a greatly expanded account of everything Abinadi had to say about Noah. Not only do we get the image of the garment in the furnace, we get the images of the dry stalk of the field and the blossoms of a thistle. Presumably these are images Abinadi actually used; why are they found only here? And is there a possibility that Abinadi didn’t say any of this extra stuff? It’s clear that the emphasis is on what Abinadi’s said about the king, and that for obvious reasons, but why is so much else left out and so much added concerning the king?
Further still, what should be read into the fact that those bringing Abinadi to the king slightly change the nature of what Abinadi says about Noah? Remember that Abinadi said not that Noah’s “life shall be as a garment in a furnace of fire,” but that “the life of king Noah shall be valued even as a garment in a hot furnace.” Abinadi’s original message was about how Noah would be regarded, and the image employed suggested that that regard would lead to Noah’s death; but the people turn this into a direct claim against Noah’s life, a prophecy of his demise. Is this deliberate distortion? Are the people trying to make Abinadi’s prophecies sound worse or more offensive or more direct than they actually were? Talk about regard for Noah could easily have been taken to be politically subversive, since it would have been seen as an attempt to turn the people against Noah. Why don’t the people emphasize that? Why take Abinadi as a kind of regicide, rather than as a subversive with his focus on the people? (Note that this is connected to the question of why the people focus on Abinadi’s words concerning the king and not on the coming bondage, etc.)
Finally, though, the people offer a token of their allegiance:
And now, O king, what great evil hast thou done? Or what great sins has thy people committed that we should be condemned of God or judged of this man? And now, O king, behold, we are guiltless, and thou, O king, hast not sinned. Therefore, this man hath lied concerning you, and he hath prophesied in vain. (Mosiah 12:13-14)
And with that, Noah has Abinadi in his control. He ships Abinadi off to prison and begins to consult with his priests about what should be done.
The Beginning and Background of Abinadi’s Trial (Mosiah 12:18-24)
The priests have a plan, and as it begins to unfold, we learn a great deal about the background of this situation. The narrative reports:
And it came to pass that they saith unto the king: Bring him hither that we may question him. And the king commanded that he should be brought before them. And they began to question him, that they might cross him, that thereby they might have wherewith to accuse him. (Mosiah 12:18-19)
The plan, it seems, is clear: the priests hope to “cross him” with their questions, digging up a serious accusation they can use to be rid of him.
This seems strange. Noah is the king, and there’s no necessity of due process in the sort of kingdom he’s running. Why not simply do away with Abinadi? That’s what Noah was talking about at the end of chapter 11 anyway: he wanted Abinadi so that he could slay him. Why do the priests make a plan to trap Abinadi in his words in order to have a solid accusation? What are they afraid of? Is it that Abinadi has begun to have a serious following? It doesn’t appear that way, and we’ll see later that Alma will only be able to generate a few hundred Abinadite followers, and that only with some serious work. So why do the priests bother with so much red tape? Why not simply have Abinadi killed?
This question is, I think, most important. If we recognize that there’s a kind of unnecessary quality to this whole occasion, we can begin to see that there’s something bigger than Abinadi’s life at stake from the perspective of the priests. They seem to think that if this situation isn’t handled carefully, there will be dire consequences for them. Either a straightforward political murder will lose them some favor with the people, or they see some serious advantage to be gained from doing away with Abinadi with an accusation. Is it possible for us to see what advantage they hoped to gain?
I think we can, and we can get started by looking carefully at the only question we have on record that they asked Abinadi. (Note that verse 19 says there were many questions, and that Abinadi boldly withstood them. But we get only the question asked in verses 20-24.) Here’s the question:
What meaneth the words which are written and which have been taught by our fathers, saying: How beautiful upon the mountains are the feet of him that bringeth good tidings, that publisheth peace, that bringeth good tidings of good, that publisheth salvation, that saith unto Zion: Thy God reigneth! Thy watchmen shall lift up the voice. With the voice together shall they sing. For they shall see eye to eye when the Lord shall bring again Zion. Break forth into joy! Sing together, ye waste places of Jerusalem! For the Lord hath comforted his people. He hath redeemed Jerusalem. The Lord hath made bare his holy arm in the eyes of all the nations, and all the ends of the earth shall see the salvation of our God. (Mosiah 12:20-24)
The only question we’re privy to is an interpretive question regarding scripture—regarding, specifically, Isaiah! What’s to be made of this? Better asked and bringing all the elements together: Is it possible for us to see what advantage the priests hope to gain by getting Abinadi to interpret Isaiah?
Some have suggested that this scripture was brought up because it speaks of prophets as happy characters, folks who, by the Spirit of the Lord, say nice things about God’s people, etc., while Abinadi has come as a deeply negative character. The idea, then, would have been to bring up the passage in order to show that Abinadi was at odds with scripture, and thereby to make an accusation that would justify Abinadi’s death. That’s clearly a step in the right direction, but it doesn’t make enough sense of the text yet. We still have to ask why the priests are bothering with this show trial when Noah could simply kill Abinadi and tell the people he was a political subversive. And, moreover, since both Isaiah and Jeremiah appeared in the brass plates, it wouldn’t have been at all difficult for Abinadi to counter with a few texts that suggest that prophets have bad news rather than good. (If the story of Jeremiah and Hananiah was in the brass plates, for instance, that could have summarily done away with any claim that prophets are the kinds of people who always bring good news.) Still more, the talk of prophets being nice and good seems really only to do with the first of the four verses quoted from Isaiah. What of the remainder of the passage? There’s much more going on here than a simple accusation that Abinadi isn’t as positive as the Isaiah text suggests he should be. So what’s really going on here?
First things first, we should be struck by the fact that it’s Isaiah that the priests are quoting. This isn’t mere prooftexting. Isaiah has been, from the earliest times in Nephite history, the most central prophetic figure for this New World people. In a whole series of lesson notes earlier this year, we worked carefully through what Nephi does with Isaiah. Nephi’s obsession with Isaiah, I hope we made clear, is deep and crucial to his project. In the end, Nephi makes Isaiah the central focus of his writings, and he has a good deal to say about how he believes his people should be likening Isaiah’s writings. The picture, to summarize, was something like this:
Isaiah was a prophet to Israel and provided Israel with a clear understanding of the history of the covenant. That history, gathered around the theme of a sealed-and-then-eventually-unsealed book, unfolds in two sequences. In the first (roughly corresponding to Isaiah 2-39—”First Isaiah”), which culminates in the production of a book sealed up for a later generation, Israel is deeply rebellious and so faces general annihilation from her enemies—general annihilation except for a small remnant that will be counted as holy and prepared to read the sealed record. In the second sequence (roughly corresponding to Isaiah 40-55—”Second Isaiah”), the preserved remnant finally opens the sealed record, reads it, and responds to its message of deliverance and peace by gathering again from its scattered state to its originally promised lands. Nephi sees in this two-sequence history the shape of the covenantal experience in general and so he asserts that his people can take Isaiah’s writings as a kind of template for making sense of their own prophesied future history, a history revealed in Nephi’s apocalyptic vision (recorded in 1 Nephi 11-14). Through the work of likening, then, the Lehites can see both their own sins and consequent destructions (First Isaiah), as well as their eventual redemption and reception of a sealed record that will lead to their gathering in the last days (Second Isaiah). Note that Nephi didn’t understand Isaiah to have addressed his people specifically, but saw that his people could take Isaiah as a kind of prophetic guide for making sense of what they knew independently about their own future.
That was the picture in the small plates. Now what has it to do with Abinadi’s situation?
The very fact that the priests are interested in Isaiah should catch our attention. And that they’ve marked a kind of return to Isaiah’s writings in connection with every other instance of return to the earliest generation of Nephite history is most important. We’ve noted in this and the last post that Zeniff marked a return to Nephi, just as Noah marked a return to Nephi’s successor, and just as Abinadi marked a return to Jacob. There has been a general playing out anew of the earliest history of the Nephites. Part of that return, it seems, is a focus on the writings of Isaiah. It’s important also, it seems, that the text that interests the priests is drawn from Isaiah 52. Nephi’s employment of Isaiah drew Isaiah 2-14, 29 from First Isaiah and Isaiah 48-51 from Second Isaiah. The priests are interested specifically in Second Isaiah—in the prophecies that deal with redemption and gathering back to the lands of promise—and they take up the text that comes immediately after the last text Nephi quoted in his own record. This can’t be accidental.
So what more can be said about their interest in Isaiah 52? Well, a few things seem obvious at the general level. The interest in Second Isaiah isn’t hard to figure out. The priests—and Zeniff before them?—likely see themselves as having lived out the fulfillment of the (likened) Second Isaiah prophecies. Nephi saw his own day as the day of fulfilling likened First Isaiah, while he projected the fulfillment of likened Second Isaiah into the future. With the “scattering” that led the Nephites from the land of Nephi to the land of Zarahemla, and then with the glorious return to the original lands of promise/inheritance, it isn’t unlikely that Zeniff and his successors had a bit to say about how their settling the city of Lehi-Nephi was at least a partial fulfillment of the likened prophecies of Second Isaiah. It isn’t difficult to guess that they saw their military successes and the like as precisely an indication of what Nephi had long since told them would happen. They were living through the end times! They were the eventual redemption of the Lehites!
Of course, there’s a good deal more ideology at work here than straightforward scriptural interpretation. Nephi is clear that the Nephites would be destroyed, and that the Gentiles would have everything to do with this return. The priests’ interpretation also seems to ignore the fact that Isaiah placed the sealing up and then unsealing of a book at the center of things (though maybe the eventual recovery of the Jaredite record drew some attention?). And a number of other details are poorly worked over in the priests’ apparent interpretation. But it isn’t difficult to see the general shape of what seems to have been going on.
The upshot of all this is that this Isaiah passage may well have been ideologically crucial to the priests. It would be one thing simply to get rid of Abinadi. But if they could get rid of Abinadi by making a nice public show of the fact that any nay-sayer is at odds with the glorious fulfillment of scripture through which they knew themselves to be living, then Abinadi’s death might serve less to show the bloody power of a tyrant and more to show the bloody end of everyone who fights against the Lord’s will. To keep the ideological underpinnings of power in place is much, much more effective than to uproot every individual threat to power.
So it seems that the priests, beautifully blind in this regard, seemed to think that there was only one possible way of interpreting Isaiah 52:7-10, and that Abinadi would produce that obvious and ideologically crucial reading. They seemed to think that by making clear what Isaiah meant, they could shut up Abinadi and keep their power in tact. Yes, prophets should only have happy news, but they should only have happy news because this people was living in the end times, after the redemption of (likened) Jerusalem. Prophets would now always bring good tidings of good and publish salvation. Now all those in charge of God’s people would see eye to eye, would be constantly singing together. And every member of the redeemed kingdom of God would see the way in which the glorious military victories of the Nephites over the Lamanites had made bare the arm of God in the eyes of all nations. Abinadi, the priests seemed to believe, would see this immediately. And if he didn’t, they only had to convince the people generally, and then Abinadi’s death would be demanded by the people who were sold on the ideological interpretation of Isaiah.
That, it seems, is what was behind the priests’ question. And note the consequences—which turn out to be massively important for the Book of Mormon’s larger history and structure. In order to respond to the priests, Abinadi has either to go through lengthy explanations of Nephi’s project, of how Nephi understood Isaiah, of how their interpretations have corrupted Nephi’s project, etc., or to uproot both the priests’ dominant approach to Isaiah and, with it, Nephi’s as well. Interestingly, Abinadi does the latter. It seems as if the Lord decided at this point to change plans through his prophet concerning how He would have His people interpret the brass plates. Nephi’s Isaiah is going to be buried by this speech, and in its place there will be a new Isaiah, one that doesn’t prophesy of the covenant and its history, but one that prophesies of the coming Messiah and His healing. In other words, the Nephites will be introduced to an Isaiah who doesn’t need so much to be read because the prophecies of the Christ are clear enough in themselves, while Isaiah’s writings are not so clear. With Abinadi’s speech, we see the beginning of the demise of Nephite interest in Isaiah. After Abinadi’s speech is over, Isaiah won’t be referred to again in the Book of Mormon until Christ comes to visit, and then He will not only quote and comment on Isaiah, but He will call the Nephites’ attention back to Nephi’s approach to Isaiah, to the Isaiah who was focused on the covenant rather than on the Messiah. Christ Himself will turn back the Abinadite tide, reverse His own intervention through the prophet Abinadi, and actually restore the original Nephite focus on Isaiah.
The stretch from Abinadi’s intervention on Isaiah until the appearance of Christ—this non-Isaianic stretch—forms a kind of history within Nephite history, the history of the Nephite church, to be founded in Mosiah 18 by Alma, Abinadi’s one convert. We’re about to work through a major turning point in the history of the Nephites. And we’ll see when we get to 3 Nephi 11 that this turning point caused a good deal of contention that is hidden behind the narrative we have of these years.
With all that said, and far too sketchily, let’s move on Abinadi’s actual response.
Abinadi Gets Started, Gets Stopped, and Gets Started Again (Mosiah 12:25–13:24)
Abinadi’s answer to the interpretive question is quite circuitous. He doesn’t come to the task of interpretation for quite some time. He doesn’t actually even deal with the interpretation of Isaiah 52:7-10, the passage he was asked about, until chapter 15! What we see happening in the remainder of chapter 12 and then all of chapters 13-14 is so much preparation for the answers he wants to provide. The first sequence of that answer is a forceful taking command of the situation.
He begins, then, with a series of questions that are clearly meant to be read as accusations:
Are you priests and pretend to teach this people, and to understand the spirit of prophesying, and yet desireth to know of me what these things mean? … What teachest thou this people? … If ye teach the law of Moses, why do ye not keep it? Why do ye set your heart upon riches? Why do ye commit whoredoms and spend your strength with harlots, yea, and cause this people to commit sin, that the Lord hath cause to send me to prophesy against this people? … Knowest thou not that I speak the truth? … And what knowest thou concerning the law of Moses? Doth salvation come by the law of Moses? (Mosiah 12:25-31)
This series of questions, which I’ve isolated from Abinadi’s other words—some of which are directly accusatory—bring out the force of Abinadi’s takeover. He isn’t interested in a debate. Indeed, he’s happy to say concerning their implicit but obvious interpretation of Isaiah simply that “if ye understand these things, ye have not taught them” (Mosiah 12:26). Instead of a debate, instead of an interrogation of his own prophetic activity, Abinadi wants to take up the position of interrogator. He has questions for them to answer. Unsurprisingly, their answers aren’t terribly productive.
This first sequence of questions comes to a kind of culmination when the priests “answered and said that salvation did come by the law of Moses” (Mosiah 12:32). That will ultimately set up the whole of what Abinadi has to say in response. His first bit of response, though, doesn’t disagree with them:
I know if ye keep the commandments of God, ye shall be saved. (Mosiah 12:33)
But then he takes this as an opportunity to begin to quote the actual commandments in question, all of which these priests have compromised:
Yea, if ye keep the commandments which the Lord delivered unto Moses in the mount of Sinai, saying: I am the Lord thy God, which have brought thee out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage. Thou shalt have no other God before me. Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image, or any likeness of any thing in the heaven above, or things which is in the earth beneath. Now Abinadi saith unto them: Have ye done all this? I say unto you: Nay, ye have not. And have ye taught this people that they should do all these things? I say unto you: Nay, ye have not. (Mosiah 12:33-37)
Abinadi’s accusation is simple: if salvation comes by the law of Moses—and with this, for the moment, he doesn’t disagree—and if the priests actually pretend to believe that, then there’s something strange about the fact that they neither keep nor teach the law of Moses in its core terms, that is, in terms of refusing idolatry.
This first part of Abinadi’s intervention is a bit too straightforward. He doesn’t call any of the priests’ interpretations of scripture into question, but simply asserts their hypocrisy regarding them. He’ll eventually turn from accusations of hypocrisy and idolatry to address much more directly the ideological problems at work in their claims to power, but only eventually. At this point, his attack has apparently been too direct, because Noah responds as follows:
Away with this fellow and slay him! For what have we to do with him? For he is mad! (Mosiah 13:1)
Note here that Noah has the power simply to have Abinadi killed. And Noah’s move here is brilliant. The show trial isn’t going in the way the priests had hoped, and Noah’s trying to cover up their terrible blunder by simply calling Abinadi mad. This is a kind of last-ditch effort to shut Abinadi up, because it’s clear that he isn’t going to give in and play the little game the priests wanted him to play. At this point, there is no real indication that Abinadi is going to unravel their entire ideology, but neither is he going to affirm it. But if he’s simply declared mad and killed for his subversive activity, then the ideology prevails. It was never really called into question. Noah’s political astuteness shows up here. He sees the way out.
But things don’t go quite according to Noah’s plan. When an attempt is made to seize Abinadi, he commands:
Touch me not! For God shall smite you if ye lay your hands upon me, for I have not delivered the message which the Lord sent me to deliver, neither have I told you that which ye requested that I should tell. Therefore, God will not suffer that I shall be destroyed at this time. But I must fulfill the commandments wherewith God hath commanded me. And because I have told you the truth, ye are angry with me. And again, because I have spoken th eword of God, ye have judged me that I am mad. (Mosiah 3:3-4)
But it seems it’s less just these words that prove effective than what happens as he says them:
Now it came to pass after Abinadi had spoken these words, that the people of king Noah durst not lay their hands on him, for the Spirit of the Lord was upon him, and his face shone with exceeding luster, even as Moses’ did while in the mount of Sinai while speaking with the Lord. (Mosiah 3:5)
It’s more this miracle than anything else that seems to have shocked the people out of their attempt to follow Noah’s command. And usually, that’s all we care to read into this passage. But, I want to suggest, there’s much, much more going on here.
First, it’s worth noting that Abinadi happens to be in the middle of quoting the ten commandments when his face begins to shine like Moses’ in Sinai. There would seem to be here a kind of replaying out of the reception of the ten commandments themselves, and I suspect there were some there on the occasion who read into it something like that. Abinadi had to be allowed to finish his message because he stood before them as a kind of new Moses, prepared to deliver the law of God. If this is right, then one can also play around with the fact that Noah’s people are, like Moses’, profoundly rebellious, and that seems to match things up further. Sometimes, if we’re looking for a bit more in this story, we stumble on these details as well. But, I want to suggest, there’s still more—in fact, a great deal more—going on here.
If we actually go to the Old Testament to take a look at where or in what story this whole shining face business takes place, we might begin to realize what’s going on. The story is to be found in Exodus 32, and it goes something like the following. Moses is up in the mountain, receiving the Law. Meanwhile, the people begin to give up on him, and so they turn to idolatry, with Aaron making a golden calf for the people to worship. There’s no borrowing from other nations in this idolatry; rather, Aaron presents the golden calf as, precisely, the Lord, but the mistake is precisely that the people are wrongly worshiping their own God, wrongly appropriating their own religion. Meanwhile, the Lord tells Moses that it’s over with Israel and threatens to destroy them completely while starting afresh with Moses and a new posterity. Moses intervenes and asks for his own name to be taken from the book of life first. The Lord relents, and Moses goes down into the camp with the tables of stone in his hand. Once he sees what’s going on, he breaks the tables, destroying the Law he’s received. After preparing the people, Moses has a chance to see the Lord directly, and then he’s instructed to produce new tables of stone to bring with him up into Sinai. He goes up with the new tables, receives the Law anew—though, presumably, with some differences—and returns to the camp of Israel. It’s as he descends out of Sinai with the second version of the Law that his face is shining and the people can’t stand it. Consequently, he assumes a veil.
That’s the story. Now what has it to do with Abinadi?
Well, the idolatry is certainly present on this occasion, but we’ve already noticed that. What’s striking is that things have gone awry in much the same way in both cases. The Israelites worshiped the Lord in the wrong way, but it was the Lord they worshiped. Similarly, Noah’s people are employing Nephi’s Isaianic appropriation in the wrong way, but it is Nephi’s Isaianic appropriation they’re employing. And what is the consequence, this Moses-like character, Abinadi, takes away from them the small plates and its project. He takes from them the law as they’ve known it, their very way of understanding the covenant. And in its place he provides them with a new way of reading Isaiah. They are turned from the covenantal focus to a strictly Christological focus, as if they are entirely unprepared to receive the “higher law” of Nephi’s emphasis. In the place of what has been the dominant theme of the Book of Mormon to this point, they are focused just on the mission of Christ and the task of a kind of basic personal righteousness. And with that gesture, Abinadi’s face shines and he begins to deliver the law that will guide the Nephites until the arrival of Christ. The emphasis here is not simply on Moses’ being the lawgiver. The emphasis is just as much—more, I think—on Moses as the giver of a lower or temporary law, a law for the meanwhile, a law until the Messiah arrives, at which point the higher or eternal law, with its heavy focus on the covenant, can be given. Abinadi will have something to say about all this.
Whatever else is being accomplished in this brief pause in Abinadi’s presentation, it’s crucial to us to see Abinadi’s face shining. It marks the real significance of this story.
And Abinadi says a few more things before he continues his actual speech. He points out that the people have no power to slay him and so announces that he’ll finish his message. After that, they can do as they wish, but they should know this: “What you do with me after this shall be as a type and a shadow of things which is to come” (Mosiah 13:10). It’s a dire warning, as it turns out. And then he finishes quoting the ten commandments, and at length. With that, he finishes off the beginning of his speech and begins to turn to his real task.
Reworking Isaiah’s Aims (Mosiah 13:25–14:12)
As I mentioned before, Abinadi won’t get to the actual Isaiah passage in question until chapter 15. But already in chapters 13 and 14, he does some heavy work on reorienting the people’s relationship to Isaiah. It’s here that he does all the hard stuff, setting up the orientation he’s introducing before he even comes to the particular passage he’s been asked about. So we need to take a look at what he does here before we look at the particulars of his interpretation of Isaiah 52:7-10.
He opens this sequence with another brief accusation, one that sums up everything he’s done so far:
Have ye taught this people that they should observe to do all these things [i.e., the ten commandments], for to keep these commandments? I say unto you: Nay. For if ye had, the Lord would not have caused me to come forth and to prophesy evil concerning this people. (Mosiah 13:25-26)
This seems straightforward enough, but notice what Abinadi accomplishes through it. By tying his own prophetic intervention specifically to the people’s disobedience of the Law—or, even more specifically, to the priests’ failure to teach the Law in the first place—he begins to set up a particular relationship between the Law and the Prophets, between the institution of the Law and the institution of the Prophets. Prophets appear, it seems, precisely when the Law is not being taught, when those in charge of the people leave off the teaching of the Law. And this, it would seem, would be true of Isaiah. Whatever Isaiah had to say, the implication is, he said because there was a failure to teach the Law among his people.
And this only becomes more poignant as Abinadi goes on:
And now ye have said that salvation cometh by the law of Moses. I say unto you that it is expedient that ye should keep the law of Moses as yet, but I say unto you that the time shall come when it shall no more be expedient to keep the law of Moses. And moreover, I say unto you that salvation doth not come by the law alone. And were it not for the atonement which God himself shall make for the sins and iniquities of his people that they must unavoidably perish, notwithstanding the law of Moses. (Mosiah 13:27-28)
This is most interesting. The task of a prophet—and so the task Isaiah took upon himself—is to intervene when the Law is being wrongly taught. That much we’d been told. But now we discover that a major part of what amounts to wrong teaching concerning the Law is the idea that the Law is self-sufficient, that the Law, without atonement, is enough for salvation. And Abinadi’s message—and with him, the message of every prophet, Isaiah included—is that there is an atonement, a messianic event, that has to supplement or complete the Law. And with this single gesture, Abinadi has already largely accomplished the reorientation he wants to accomplish with Isaiah. Already, Isaiah is going to have to be understood as a prophet precisely in that he looks forward to the coming of the Messiah, and in that he takes the Law of Moses to anticipate that coming event. The Law is insufficient in itself.
And then this:
And now, I say unto you that it was expedient that there should be a law given to the children of Israel, yea, even a very strict law. For they were a stiffnecked people, quick to do iniquity and slow to remember the Lord their God. Therefore, there was a law given them—yea, a law of performances and of ordinances—a law which they were to observe strictly from day to day to keep them in remembrance of God and their duty towards him. But behold, I say unto you that all these things were types of things to come. And now, did they understand the law? I say unto you: Nay, they did not all understand the law, and this because of the hardness of their hearts. For they understood not that there could not any man be saved except it were through the redemption of God. (Mosiah 13:29-32)
Things get much more radical here. The Law, according to Abinadi, was only given in the first place in order to focus the people on daily reminders of the coming of the Christ—a set of typological anticipations of what would come to introduce salvation to them. Note here the echoes of what’s just happened with the whole shining face experience. Moses replaced the original law with one that was stricter and more directly adapted to a people unprepared to encounter God. Abinadi is doing the same at this very moment, turning the small plates and the work of interpreting Isaiah into a set of daily practices that focus one on having the right relationship to the Christ. Gone is the covenant. Gone is the historical emphasis. Gone is sealing up of books that will come forth later to launch massive changes in a world gone awry.
There’s much that happens with this ever-so-slight move. (Indeed, I’ve written a whole book on it!) But let’s get on with the story.
With the next verse, Abinadi makes a most curious move: Moses himself prophesied of the Messiah—Moses, the prophet par excellence. Here’s what Abinadi says:
For behold, did not Moses prophesy unto them concerning the coming of the Messiah, and that God should redeem his people? Yea, and even all the prophets which have prophesied ever since the world began, have they not spoken more or less concerning these things? Have they not said that God himself should come down among the children of men and take upon him the form of man and go forth in mighty power upon the face of the earth? Yea, and have they not said also that he should bring to pass the resurrection of the dead and that he himself should be oppressed and afflicted? (Mosiah 13:33-35)
Moses stands in here as the prototype of every prophet, and with this move the figure of the prophet is unified for Abinadi. Every prophet does the same thing—namely, prophesy of Christ. That’s the whole story. And so it must be true of Isaiah. And that’s what we get in the whole next chapter. Abinadi quotes the whole of Isaiah 53 in order to show, without a whole lot of intervening interpretation, that Isaiah obviously prophesied of the Christ. This chapter of Isaiah is familiar enough, and the Christological interpretation is popular enough, that I’m not sure I need to say anything about it. Abinadi assumes its interpretation to be so straightforward that he need offer no real comment on it. (Well, he’ll say a few things by way of commentary in chapter 15, but we’ll get to that.)
What Abinadi’s trying to do with Isaiah 53, though, must be understood carefully, despite so much obviousness. Remember that he’s been asked about Isaiah 52, about a text that the priests would seem to have interpreted very much along the covenantal lines of Nephi’s appropriation of Second Isaiah. But Abinadi points out that Isaiah 52 has to be read along with and in light of Isaiah 53, which he takes to be obviously about Christ. The reason to quote Isaiah 53 is to show that everything in Isaiah 52 has to be read Christologically. It’s a bit of a slippery move, but the effect it has on subsequent generations of Nephites is unmistakable. This is the lens through which they’ll read Isaiah, and it’s the lens through which most Latter-day Saints—not without many problems—read Isaiah.
With all that squared away, though, I think we can move on to chapter 15 to see what Abinadi does with all this. I’ll leave close reading of Isaiah 53 to you.
Hard-Hitting Theology (Mosiah 15:1-18)
The moment Abinadi finishing quoting Isaiah 53 to the people, he launches into what remains the most difficult theological passages in the Book of Mormon. Let’s see if we can’t unravel them in light of what we’ve already been sorting out. I don’t think, in the end, that they’re nearly as difficult as we try to make them.
And now, Abinadi saith unto them: I would that ye should understand that God himself shall come down among the children of men, and shall redeem his people. (Mosiah 15:1)
Abinadi starts off easy enough, no? But actually, much of what will make what follows clear is contained already in this verse. Abinadi is trying to think about a very particular gesture: what it means to say that God Himself will come down to redeem His people. There is a reflection here only on one God. Just as Abinadi has already left behind—at God’s instigation—the whole of Nephi’s approach to Isaiah, he here leaves behind Nephi’s conception of God. Remember that in 2 Nephi 31, Nephi spoke of a strong distinction between God the Father and God the Son, and he spoke very clearly of how the Father and the Son are intertwined by their mutual relationship to the Holy Ghost. Here, however, Abinadi is interested only in “God,” not in the distinct figures of the Father and the Son, and he’s not at all interested in the Holy Ghost here (he’ll never mention the Holy Ghost at all!). What Abinadi is trying to talk about is what it means for a God to divest Himself of His divinity. And so he goes on:
And because he dwelleth in flesh, he shall be called the Son of God. (Mosiah 15:2)
Note here that Abinadi’s talking about what God, once in flesh, will be called. There isn’t talk here about different persons, but about different ways that the one God Abinadi’s talking about will function. In flesh, this one God in question will be called “the Son of God.” God, on Abinadi’s account, will divest Himself of divinity to some extent by taking up flesh, and so will be called “the Son of God.” But whatever of God that remains non-fleshly, that remains fully God, will be called the Father, as Abinadi next makes clear:
And, having subjected the flesh to the will of the Father … . (Mosiah 15:2)
Now, I know how this is sometimes read. We’re sometimes inclined to see this as talk about two distinct beings, as if we’re talking about Jesus Christ being willing to be subject to the distinct being that is God the Father. But that’s not what Abinadi’s doing, as will be clear in a moment. Here, “the Father” is the same God, another aspect or function of the same God. Abinadi isn’t denying Nephi’s doctrine, according to which God the Father and God the Son are distinct beings with different voices, etc. He’s just not dealing with that question. Instead, he’s trying to talk about what it means to split a God in two, what it means when a God becomes flesh. Whatever of that God dwells in the flesh is called the Son of God (not, though, “God the Son”), while whatever it is to which that flesh can be subjected is called “the Father.” The relationship between the two aspects of functions of a God split against Himself can be thought of in terms of a father/son relationship.
At any rate, that this is the sort of thing Abinadi’s thinking about becomes clear with the next clause:
being the Father and the Son … . (Mosiah 15:2)
The whole point here is to think about a God splitting Himself into two roles or aspects or functions through incarnation. To whatever extent a God is enfleshed, He is called God’s Son. To whatever extent He remains God, He is called the Father. In that self-diremption, He is Father and Son, but that to which the flesh is submitted and that that dwells in the flesh. These two parts are now clarified a bit:
the Father, because he was conceived by the power of God, and the Son, because of the flesh, thus becoming the Father and Son—and they are one God, yea, the very Eternal Father of heaven and of earth … . (Mosiah 15:3-4)
Note that “the Father” here isn’t a separate being that is elsewhere. Note further that even when the God in question is split between two parts or functions, the “Father-part” of Him isn’t something of Him that remains in heaven. The whole of God, as awkward as it sounds to talk like that, is there in the person of Jesus. But Jesus is thus both Father and Son—the one because He is unmistakably divine (“conceived by the power of God”), and the other because He is nonetheless unmistakably human (“the flesh”). But here we’re talking about one God, Father and Son. There’s no interest, so far as Abinadi is concerned, in the distinction between Jesus Christ as Heavenly Father. We’re dealing only with the God who, in the flesh, we know as Jesus. (Whether Abinadi even knows of that other God is an open question.)
Abinadi goes on:
And thus, the flesh becoming subject to the spirit, or the Son to the Father, being one God, suffereth temptation and yieldeth not to the temptation, but suffereth himself to mocked and scourged and cast out and disowned by his people. (Mosiah 15:5)
Now all this difficult theology is beginning to cash out: The point here is to make sense of the suffering of the Christ. All of Christ’s suffering is a “becoming subject” of the flesh to the spirit, of the Son to the Father, of the one aspect of God in the flesh to the other aspect of God in the flesh. The point here isn’t to sort out the Godhead, but to sort out the nature of the incarnational gesture and the way it opens up the possibility of suffering.
But one might well ask what the idea is, here. Why would the full submission of the flesh to the spirit, of the Son to the Father, amount to suffering? Or what has that submission to do with suffering? Wouldn’t it be precisely the opposite, the submission of the spirit to the flesh, that amounts to the suffering of God? There’s a bit of a surprise here. The implication, it would seem, is that it is the Father’s will that the Son suffer—the will of the one aspect of God to put the other one to suffering. Such would be, it seems, an echo of Isaiah 53, which Abinadi has only just quoted:
Yet it pleased the Lord to bruise him. He hath put him to grief. (Mosiah 14:10)
Note here that there are reasons some readers of Isaiah 53 have been nervous, being uncomfortable with the idea of God the Father being “pleased” in whatever sense to bruise Jesus, as if it were God’s will to put His Son through a great deal of pain. But Abinadi’s approach here takes the problem away from this text. The idea, it seems, is that Christ Himself has the will to suffer, that Christ is pleased to put Himself through suffering in order to break the cycle of suffering. It is a matter only of the flesh becoming subject to the spirit; not of one being becoming subject to another here.
At any rate, this flesh/spirit entanglement soon comes to its culmination:
And after all this, and after working many mighty miracles among the children of men, he shall be led, yea, even as Isaiah said: as a sheep before the shearer is dumb, so he opened not his mouth. Yea, even so he shall be led, crucified, and slain, the flesh becoming subject even unto death, the will of the Son being swallowed up in the will of the Father. (Mosiah 15:6-7)
The ultimate act of submission, the ultimate event in which the Son is subject to the Father here—never forgetting that we’re dealing with the one God—is death on the cross. At that point, the flesh’s will is swallowed up completely in the spirit’s will, the Son completely in the Father. What’s on display here is a reversal of the order of the world. The wicked way of the world, as even a cursory reading of the Book of Ether will point out, is that sons put their fathers to death—or at least that they bury them, that they succeed them. This is what Lehi calls “the way of all the earth” in 2 Nephi 1:14. But here, it seems, the way of all the earth is turned backward: a father puts a son to death, buries a son, or rather, the Father puts the Son to death. Somewhat less metaphorically, this is that most rare event: the spirit overcomes the flesh, rather than vice versa. The very order of this fallen world is that in which the flesh triumphs over the spirit, and that universally. In Christ’s death, however, this is reversed, the will of the flesh being entirely—entirely!—swallowed up in the will of the spirit. Indeed, this overcoming of the flesh by the spirit is complete and couldn’t be more complete; the flesh is subject “even unto death,” to the point of the flesh being lost.
And all this is effected, according to Abinadi, in that Christ “opened not his mouth.” The words here are obviously drawn—again–from Isaiah 53, from what Abinadi has just been quoting (see Mosiah 14:7). It is that act of pure submission, of going like a lamb to the slaughter, that marks the absolute submission of the flesh to the spirit.
And then we learn what all this accomplishes:
And thus God breaketh the bands of death, having gained the victory over death, giving the Son power to make intercession for the children of men, having ascended into heaven, having the bowels of mercy, being filled with compassion toward the children of men, standing betwixt them and justice, having broken the bands of death, having taken upon himself their iniquity and their transgression, having redeemed them and satisfied the demands of justice. (Mosiah 15:8-9)
There’s a good deal happening in this short passage. But let’s begin right at the beginning: it’s through this most radical of submissions that “God breaketh the bands of death.” How is that? Can we put a finer point on this? What exactly is it about the complete submission of the flesh to the spirit, of the Son to the Father, that actually “breaketh the bands of death”? And in what way is it important to Abinadi that all this is a story about the one God, about “God himself,” doing this?
At least this much we can say: death becomes something different in Christ’s death, something other than what it’s always been. No other death happens simply because the flesh is swallowed up in the spirit; no other death happens because father puts son to death without struggle or resistance (though it almost happened with Abraham and Isaac). This is an absolutely unique death, one that works differently from every other death. It’s an exceptional death, death as an exception to death: death, as it were, without death. By dying in a different way, by dying in a way that marks complete control over death, by dying in a way that marks the limits of death as the (wicked) way of the world, God seizes death, takes over death, breaks death’s bands. With the effectuation of this exception, death no longer has complete control. Death is punctured, and its power begins to leak out of the almost invisible hole that’s left behind.
Notice—how interesting!—that there’s no talk here of the resurrection, of the resumption of the flesh. So far as Abinadi’s concerned, the victory over death takes place in death itself. (There will be talk of the resurrection later, but we’ll see that it’s a bit complex.) It isn’t, for Abinadi, simply the fact that Christ came back to life that marks the victory over death; rather, it’s that Christ died in this unique, this exceptional way. And this act, we’re told, “giv[es] the Son power to make intercession for the children of men.” There’s no talk here of Christ’s resurrection simply effecting a change in the very fabric of the flesh, such that now all people will be resurrected. Instead, there’s talk only of the dawn of the possibility of interceding, of the Son having power to make intercession. The key to this, it seems, is a certain relationship between mercy and justice.
We tend, as Latter-day Saints, to be quite self-satisfied about our understanding of mercy and justice. But I wonder whether we’ve even begun to explore what the Book of Mormon has to say about the topic. Abinadi may or may not agree with other Book of Mormon figures about the nature of the relation between these two terms. So rather than look elsewhere to what we think we get clearly, let’s ask what Abinadi himself has to say here. So what does he say? The intercession that becomes possible through the exceptional death of Christ is in part a question of his acquiring “the bowels of mercy,” of his “being filled with compassion toward the children of men.” The idea would seem to be that the very experience of the flesh allows God—the one God we’re talking about through this whole passage—to develop the deepest compassion, the deepest feeling of love for human beings in the fully fallen situation. That, it would seem, is what motivated Christ to go to His death, what motivated Him to let the flesh be swallowed up in the spirit. And once He’s done that, gaining power to intercede, He can stand between “the children of men” and “justice.” He’s “taken upon himself their iniquity and their transgressions.” He’s “redeemed them and satisfied the demands of justice.” How? Is there enough information here to know what all that means? What does justice demand, according to Abinadi?
Most crucial, it seems, is this image of Christ “standing betwixt [human beings] and justice.” There’s a kind of separation that’s effected, a kind of distancing that’s accomplished. How does that work? This is, all over again, to talk of intercession. Christ stands between (“inter”) two things, distancing them from one another. Justice isn’t allowed to get at human beings, effectively because Christ stands in the way. And yet that somehow satisfies justice. There seems to be a clear idea here that when Christ stands between justice and persons, it’s less that He blocks justice from having its way than that He stands in the place of those persons, pushing them further back so that He can take what’s coming. He has thus “redeemed them,” removed them from their compromising situation, emancipated them from slavery, yet in a way that justice hasn’t been compromised.
Of course, there’s much thinking still to be done about what exactly is meant by “justice.” We’re very quick to read it in legislative terms—as if it were a question of certain penalties that have to be paid if justice is to be met. It’s worth noting, however, that that’s neither how the Bible nor the Book of Mormon anywhere else understands justice. The Old Testament is filled with talk of justice, and it means, quite precisely, the work of redeeming the poor, of getting those in dire circumstances out of those circumstances. It doesn’t seem that that can quite be the meaning here, since, if justice were to be a question of redemption pure and simple, it doesn’t make much sense to have Christ standing between human beings and justice. What, then? Well, elsewhere in the Book of Mormon (and I’m thinking specifically here of Alma’s talk with Corianton in Alma 39-42) justice is a question not of penalties being paid, but of a kind of law of “restoration.” Justice is a matter, according to Alma, of like begetting like, of like bringing back like. The demands of justice would be precisely that what is a certain way is brought back that way. If that’s what’s going on here, then Christ’s satisfaction of the demands of justice would mean that, through His redemption of humanity, He changes their nature—or makes possible the change of their nature—so that they can be restored to good, to His good, rather than to evil, to their own evil. Maybe.
At any rate, it’s clear that much, much more work needs to be done on all this.
And then Abinadi asks this question, borrowed—yet again—from Isaiah 53 (see Mosiah 14:8):
And now I say unto you: Who shall declare his generation? (Mosiah 15:10)
What can Abinadi mean by this question? There are several possibilities, and we can only play with possibilities. Does he mean to ask who can make sense of Christ’s dual nature as Father and Son? Does he mean to ask who can announce His victory over death? Does he mean to ask who can anticipate His coming—still in the future for Abinadi and the people of Noah? Does he mean to ask who will have the guts to preach Christ’s coming? Or is this about what Abinadi goes on immediately to talk about—Christ’s “seed,” the generation of believers to which He, as it were, gives birth? Here’s what Abinadi says in the rest of the same verse:
Behold, I say unto you that when his soul has been made an offering for sin, he shall see his seed. And now, what say ye? And who shall be his seed?
Note that here again the reference is to Isaiah 53. Abinadi had just recited the following to them: “When thou shalt make his soul an offering for sin, he shall see his seed.” So what’s this all about? Is the generation in question the generation of Christ’s seed, the generation that follows Christ? And what or who is this seed? Well, to this last question, Abinadi actually gives a straightforward response:
Behold, I say unto you that whosoever hath heard the words of the prophets—yea, all the holy prophets which have prophesied concerning the coming of the Lord—I say unto you that all those who hath hearkened unto their words and believed that the Lord would redeem his people and have looked forward to that day for a remission of their sins, I say unto you that these are his seed, or they are heirs of the kingdom of God. For these are they whose sins he hath borne. These are they for whom he hath died to redeem them from their transgressions. And now, are they not his seed? (Mosiah 15:11-12)
This, it would seem, is the generation of Christ, those He has produced, His seed. All who have believed the words of the prophets. They are Christ’s heirs, those for whom He died, bearing their transgressions.
But that’s not all!
Yea, and are not the prophets, every one that has opened his mouth to prophesy that has not fallen into transgression—I mean all the holy prophets ever since the world began—I say unto you that they are his seed. (Mosiah 15:13)
Not only the believers, but also those who announce what the believers believe in. The prophets and their followers together make up the community of Christ’s heirs, together make up Christ’s generation.
Let’s say that all this is straightforward enough, at least for now. And what does Abinadi do next? He comes, at long last, to the actual Isaiah passage he was asked about from the start. With all he’s said—his reworking of the relationship between the Law and the Prophets, his recitation of Isaiah 53, his theologically fraught discourse about the Father/Son, and his brief clarification of what it means for prophets and followers of prophets to be heirs of the Father/Son that is Christ—it is now possible finally to say something about the passage the priests have put to him. And his interpretation shouldn’t much surprise us now:
And these [the prophets] are they which hath published peace, that hath brought good tidings of good, that hath published salvation, that saith unto Zion: Thy God reigneth! And O! How beautiful upon the mountains were their feet! (Mosiah 15:14-15)
The prophets, the second element making up Christ’s seed, are those who have published peace, who are the embodiment of Isaiah 52:7. Remember that the priests, we riddled out, understand this same verse to be talking about prophets as well. There seems to be no difference between Abinadi and Noah’s priests on that count. But what each understands by “prophet” is quite distinct. The priests, it seems, understand a prophet to be any inspired person who will announce in a confirming way that the return to the land of Nephi marks the fulfillment of the Lord’s covenants, that history has come to a kind of end, that the Law of Moses need not be kept in every regard now. Abinadi, however, understands the prophet to be the person who has announced the coming of Christ, the event that has not been accomplished at this point. History hasn’t come to an end for Abinadi; there remains its central event at the very least. (Indeed, Abinadi spends the next two verses talking about those who are still publishing peace by announcing Christ’s coming and those who will yet publish peace that way.) And that’s what the prophet has her or his eye trained on. Isaiah 52:7, according to Abinadi, looks to the time of Christ, announces His generation, gathers His seed—the believers, rather than covenant community. It shouldn’t be likened in the way the priests have likened it, not at all. Their attempt to follow out Nephi’s program of interpretation has to be abandoned—and with it, apparently, Nephi’s covenantal approach to Isaiah as well, at least for a time. For now, all this is to focus on Christ.
Finally, this interpretive work on Isaiah 52:7 comes to an end when Abinadi suggests the following:
And behold, I say unto you: This is not all, for O! How beautiful upon the mountains are the feet of him that bringeth good tidings, that is the founder of peace—yea, even the Lord who hath redeemed his people! Yea, him who hath granted salvation unto his people! (Mosiah 15:18)
The greatest fulfillment of Isaiah 52:7 isn’t even the prophets who announce the coming of Christ; it would be Christ Himself. The words of the prophets are universally anticipations of Christ for Abinadi. There’s no other way to make sense of them.
And then, rather suddenly, Abinadi turns to the question of the resurrection, and this will separate his talk of Isaiah 52:7 from his talk of Isaiah 52:8-10. It’s clear that the clarifications he now offers are meant to do the rest of the work of preparing to interpret Isaiah. An aside about the resurrection is necessary before the rest of the original Isaiah passage in question can be addressed.
The Resurrection (Mosiah 15:19-31)
At this point, we begin to move pretty quickly. Verse 20 finally brings the resurrection in where we would have expected it long before:
And behold, the bands of death shall be broken, and the Son reigneth and hath power over the dead—therefore, he bringeth to pass the resurrection of the dead.
If that’s straightforward enough for now, Abinadi immediately goes on to complicate his story pretty drastically.
And there cometh a resurrection, even a first resurrection—yea, even a resurrection of those that have been, and which are, and which shall be, even until the resurrection of Christ (for so shall he be called). (Mosiah 15:21)
Included in this resurrection, as the next verses explain, are “all the prophets” and “all those that have believed in their words”—that is, the collected “seed” of Christ. Indeed, it seems best to understand Abinadi’s words here to be an attempt still to sort out what it means when Isaiah says that Christ (on Abinadi’s interpretation) will “see his seed.” The idea, it appears, is that Christ, upon resurrecting, will see his seed: the prophets and those who have believed them, all leading up to the actual event of his own resurrection. The resurrection of Christ’s seed—His generation, which rises with Him from the dead—is the first resurrection, as Abinadi understands it. (Note that this has little or nothing to do with what Latter-day Saints usually understand by the “first resurrection.”) These collectively are “raised to dwell with God, who hath redeemed them” (Mosiah 15:23).
And then we get this interesting detail: included among Christ’s seed, among those to be resurrected with Him as part of His “generation,” are “they that have died before Christ came in their ignorance, not having salvation declared unto them” (Mosiah 15:24), and that rather obviously includes “little children” (Mosiah 15:25). With this move, Abinadi echoes/anticipates King Benjamin, who had a good deal to say about this same subject.
But Abinadi’s real focus is to let his hearers know that they, having had a prophet come to them (namely, himself: Abinadi), have no such possibility. They face a very real danger, because they know the prophet’s message, but they are not believing. Abinadi puts it this way:
But behold and fear and tremble before God (for ye had ought to tremble), for the Lord redeemeth none such that rebelleth against him and dieth in their sins—yea, even all those that have perished in their sins, ever since the world began—that have willfully rebelled against God, that have known the commandments of God and would not keep them. These are they that have no part in the first resurrection. Therefore, had ye not ought to tremble? For salvation cometh to none such, for the Lord hath redeemed none such. Yea, neither can the Lord redeem such, for he cannot deny himself, for he cannot deny justice when it hath its claim. (Mosiah 15:26-27)
The warning is clear. Abinadi doesn’t belabor the point here (though he’ll come back to it in chapter 16). Instead, he comes at long last to the interpretation of Isaiah 52:8-10. Let’s see if we can make this perfectly clear. To this point, he has drawn—like the angel who visited Benjamin does in Mosiah 3—a distinction between those who know and don’t know the law, and then between those who know and obey and who know and don’t obey. And then, like Benjamin’s angel, he goes on—this is the next verse, verse 28—to announce that the day will eventually come when all will know, so that there will be only the distinction between those who know and obey and those who know and don’t obey. Here’s how he says it:
And now, I say unto you that the time shall come that the salvation of the Lord shall be declared to every nation, kindred, tongue, and people. (Mosiah 15:28)
Now where Benjamin’s angel says this, he goes on to add that the implication is that “none shall be found blameless, … only through repentance and faith,” etc. (Mosiah 3:21). But here, for Abinadi, he suddenly derails, though only for a couple of verses. Rather than turning immediately to the implication that everyone will know, and so the only means of salvation will be through repentance, etc., he turns to the task—finally!—of interpreting Isaiah 52:8-10. And his interpretation is more implied than anything else: he simply quotes those verses anew. But because of the way he’s contextualized them, his interpretation of them is quite clear:
Yea, Lord, thy watchmen shall lift up their voice; with the voice together shall they sing—for they shall see eye to eye when the Lord shall bring again Zion. Break forth into joy! Sing together, ye waste places of Jerusalem! For the Lord hath comforted his people! He hath redeemed Jerusalem! The Lord hath made bare his holy arm in the eyes of all the nations, and all the ends of the earth shall see the salvation of our God. (Mosiah 15:29-31)
As I say, this couldn’t be much clearer at this point. Where the priests seem to have understood these verses to describe the universal approbation, in the redeemed land of Nephi, of what has taken place, as well as to describe the fact that all nations—the Lamanites in particular—had seen the power of God manifest in the Nephites’ military victories in the land of Nephi, Abinadi see something rather distinct at work here. Abinadi hears in Isaiah’s words the announcement that the day will come when all will know the message of redemption, and those who receive it will rejoice and see eye to eye. Only at that point, with universal knowledge of the gospel, will the Lord have made bare His arm in the eyes of all the nations, etc. As before, Abinadi’s interpretation of Isaiah focuses solely on the coming of the Christ. There’s no talk of covenants, of lands redeemed, of likening. Everything is Christological.
And then Abinadi gets back to condemning his condemners.
Conclusions (Mosiah 16-17)
I want to wrap this post up, since it is already very long. Chapters 16 and 17 tell their own story for the most part, anyway. Just a few comments here should see me through.
Verses 1-5 of chapter 16 bring Abinadi back to his accusation of the priests, but he does it indirectly, talking about “the wicked” in the third person throughout. Verses 6-12 then see him summarizing the core of his message concerning the resurrection. More needs to be said about these verses, but I worry already about how much space and time this post is taking up. For the moment, I’ll let them speak for themselves. Finally, verses 13-15 bring Abinadi back to direct accusation:
And now, had ye not ought to tremble and repent of your sins, and remember, only in the through Christ ye can be saved? Therefore, if ye teach the law of Moses, also teach that it is a shadow of those things which are to come. Teach them that redemption cometh through Christ the Lord, which is the very Eternal Father. Amen. (Mosiah 16:13-15)
This is a bit anticlimatic, and one wonders whether Mormon as editor (or someone before him) didn’t simply run out of steam at this point. Did Abinadi really give such a summary conclusion to things, returning only so briefly to the matter that set him in motion in the first place? But that too rapid ending quickly gives way to narrative, and Abinadi himself meets his end quite quickly.
I’ll leave chapter 17 also mostly to speak for itself. We learn about Alma’s “conversion” of sorts and his escape from Noah’s priests. We learn of the priests’ absurd accusation (it was Abinadi’s theology that official got him killed!). And get the actual story of Abinadi’s martyrdom—including his final words of criticism and prophecy. I’ll let all these speak for themselves, for the moment.
What I hope, nonetheless, that I’ve shown in the course of this post is the complexity of Abinadi’s sermon, and how crucial it is for the development of Nephite history. Alma, whose escape we’ve only really noted, not explored, will have drastically important consequences. The whole history of the Nephites will be affected by Abinadi’s death because of what Alma does in the wake of his own conviction. We’ll watch this unfold in the next lesson.
For now, we’re just left to mourn Abinadi’s passing.