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The Visit of Christ in Third Nephi, 3 – Marvel and Wonder

Posted by joespencer on September 5, 2013

The setting of Christ’s visit to the New World is complex. A large group of “the people of Nephi” was gathered about the Bountiful temple, but they were not idly standing around waiting for something to happen. The text describes them as follows: “they were marveling and wondering one with another and were showing one to another the great and marvelous change which had taken place.” The first two verbs used to describe the actions of the people—”marveling” and “wondering”—deserve some attention, though they might seem straightforward enough. As it turns out, their coupling is quite infrequent in scripture, appearing only a total of six times. (I won’t bother with the last of these, since it appears in the Book of Moses.) Even more importantly, there’s a very specific genealogy of sorts that lies behind their coupled appearance here in 3 Nephi 11:1.

Only once in the Bible do forms of the word “marvel” and “wonder” appear together. It’s in a text well known by Latter-day Saints: Isaiah 29. Here’s the passage:

Wherefore the Lord said, Forasmuch as this people draw near me with their mouth, and with their lips do honour me, but have removed their heart far from me, and their fear toward me is taught by the precept of men: Therefore, behold, I will proceed to do a marvellous work among this people, even a marvellous work and a wonder: for the wisdom of their wise men shall perish, and the understanding of their prudent men shall be hid. (Isaiah 29:13-14.)

Now, a few things have to be said about this passage before we move along from it to other coupled appearances. First, it should be recognized that, though we as Latter-day Saints have a ready interpretation of this passage in light of what’s done with Isaiah 29 in the Book of Mormon or with this passage in particular in the course of the First Vision, things are more complex than just that. We’ll look at the use of this passage in 2 Nephi 27 a little further along, and we’ll have to leave the First Vision for another time. For the moment, I want just to look at the Isaiah passage in its own, original setting.

The passage quoted above appears just after Isaiah has described the complete failure of his people to receive his prophetic teachings. He’s presented them with what he’s been commanded to tell them, but they receive it like a sealed book—those who can’t read announce that they can’t read it at all, and those who can read point out that it’s sealed and so can’t be read anyway. The Lord’s response to all this is to announce that such responses mark the people’s hypocrisy (they speak piously, but their hearts are distant from God), and then to begin to undertake “a marvelous work,” the Hebrew word indicating an act intended to surprise or even to confuse or to baffle. Indeed, the word translated “I will proceed” literally means “I will increase,” such that at least one translation renders the first part of verse 13 as “I will further baffle this people.” Immediately following this the Lord provides a clarification of this “marvelous work,” this increase of surprise: “even a marvelous work and a wonder.” The Hebrew here is odd—baffling, one might say. It would be most literally translated as something like, “with bafflement upon bafflement,” or “one surprise after another.” At any rate, the same noun meaning surprise (pl’) appears twice, the first qualified with the definite article and the second with the conjunction “and.” Here, it seems, we’ve got a listing of the “increase” mentioned in the preceding phrase: to increase the people’s surprise is to add surprise to surprise. Odd, then, as it might sound, the English rendering from the King James Version takes this repetition of a single word and turns it into a poetically balanced pairing of synonymous terms, “a marvelous work” and “a wonder.”

Whatever the complexities of the Hebrew, then, we get a decent—if poetically creative—rendering in the King James Version, and it’s that from which the several couplings of “marvel” and “wonder” in the Book of Mormon seem to draw. Certainly the first two, both in 2 Nephi 25-27, draw directly on the King James rendering of Isaiah 29. The first comes in 2 Nephi 25:17-18, where Nephi announces as part of his own prophecy, meant to help clarify Isaiah’s intentions rather generally (but perhaps especially in Isaiah 2-14), that “the Lord will set his hand again the second time to restore his people [here, specifically the Jews] from their lost and fallen state. Wherefore, he will proceed to do a marvelous work and a wonder among the children of men. Wherefore, he shall bring forth his words unto them, . . . for they shall be given them for the purpose of convincing them of the true Messiah, who was rejected by them.” Here Nephi weaves an allusion to Isaiah 11:11 (the Lord setting His hand again the second time) with his borrowing from Isaiah 29:14 (a marvelous work and a wonder), and the acts described in each of the two texts are equated (such that setting the hand the second time is to do the marvelous work) and then expressly described as a bringing out of His words (presumably in the form of the Book of Mormon). This configuration is then confirmed in 2 Nephi 27:24-26, where Isaiah 29:13-14 is quoted more or less without alteration, and again in connection with the coming forth of the Book of Mormon in the last days.

It’s clear, then, that the coupling of marvel and wonder in Isaiah 29 lies behind these early appearances of the same coupling in the Book of Mormon. What, though, of the coupling of the two terms in 3 Nephi 11 (and thereafter)? First, it should be noted that there’s at least a certain transformation of the Isaianic text in 3 Nephi 11:1. The nouns of Isaiah (“a marvelous work,” “a wonder”) have been replaced with verbs (“they were marveling and wondering”). And rather than being what God does (it’s God in Isaiah who proceeds to do the marvel, the wonder), here it’s what human beings do (they marvel and wonder), although it should be said that what marveling and wondering human beings do in 3 Nephi 11 is in response to something marvelous and wonderful accomplished by God (the destruction). Taken together, these changes suggest that there’s really on a slight shift in register here: 3 Nephi 11 focuses on the human response (marveling and wondering) to divine initiative (a marvelous work, a wonder).

This suggests, in part, that we should see the destructions themselves as a kind of fulfillment of the Isaianic reference to “a marvelous work” and “a wonder.” That’s odd, perhaps, because the Isaianic text seems to suggest that the marvel/wonder that God produces is a positive thing, at least as Nephi appropriates the text. Why would it be reworked here into something negative? Of course, we might point to the fact that even the Isaiah text marks the fact that the marvelous work, the wonder, in question would the effect of destroying “the wisdom of their wise men,” etc. However that’s to be understood, though, we might note that the other instance of coupling marvel and wonder in Third Nephi also refers to the negative, but mixes it with the positive. Here’s the text, which appears just after Jesus finishes teaching the New-World version of the Sermon on the Mount: “there were some among them who marveled, and wondered what he would concerning the law of Moses; for they understood not the saying that old things had passed away, and that all things had become new” (3 Nephi 15:2). Here again, marvel and wonder has something to do with destruction: “old things had passed away.” But here, more clearly than before, the destruction is qualified by the production of the new: “old things had passed away, and . . . all things had become new.” And we might note that Jesus had specifically said that he had not “come to destroy the law,” but rather “to fulfill” it (3 Nephi 12:17).

With the 3 Nephi 15 reference, we begin to see the possibility that the marveling and wondering of 3 Nephi 11 is in response to a certain weave of destruction and re-creation. They marvel and wonder at what the text calls the change that had taken place, but change doesn’t amount to destruction alone. As old things pass away, all things become new. And that’s something emphasized in the chapters leading up to 3 Nephi 11:1. In the middle of so much destruction, and especially of so much darkness, the Nephites and Lamanites heard the voice of Christ announcing that He was the creator, as well as the light of the world (see 3 Nephi 9:15, 18). In the midst of destruction, creation; in the midst of darkness, God commands that there be light.

In the end, then, it seems that the marvel and wonder of the Nephites gathered at the Bountiful temple are meant to reflect the Isaiah text, despite the apparent differences. As much in the transformation of the New World before the coming of Christ as in the eventual emergence of the Book of Mormon itself, God performs a marvelous work and a wonder. And here in 3 Nephi 11, perhaps, we see how we ought to respond to such marvels and wonders. As the Nephites did before the passing of the old and the dawn of the new, we ought to marvel and wonder at what has passed and at what has dawned with the emergence of the Book of Mormon.

3 Responses to “The Visit of Christ in Third Nephi, 3 – Marvel and Wonder”

  1. […] http://feastuponthewordblog.org/2013/09/05/the-visit-of-christ-in-third-nephi-3-marvel-and-wonder/ […]

  2. John said

    “I won’t bother with the last of these, since it appears in the Book of Moses.” Why?

    “That’s odd, perhaps, because the Isaianic text seems to suggest that the marvel/wonder that God produces is a positive thing, at least as Nephi appropriates the text. Why would it be reworked here into something negative?”

    If, as Clifford Jones suggests, they are marveling and wondering about the Atonement then it would be a positive thing.

    The Great and Marvelous Change: An Alternate Interpretation
    by Clifford P. Jones
    Journal of the Book of Mormon and Other Restoration Scripture 19/2 (2010), 50-63

    • joespencer said

      Well, I only omitted the Book of Moses to keep the post short, and because the Moses text came to us after the Book of Mormon (I was considering the genealogy of the terminology). But I don’t mean to suggest it’s entirely irrelevant!

      And note that I argue, eventually, that it wasn’t a negative thing they were marveling and wondering about, but the dawn of something new. I like Clifford Jones’s piece very much, but I’m not entirely convinced that he’s right. That said, I should have mentioned it at least. You have my thanks for getting it into the comments!

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