Feast upon the Word Blog

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BoM Lesson 9: 2 Nephi 11-25

Posted by Robert C. on February 25, 2008

“My Soul Delighteth in the Words of Isaiah”: 2 Nephi 11-25

I’m going to be focusing my comments on 2 Nephi 16 (Isaiah 6), which I will argue is the central chapter for understanding this week’s lesson (and possibly all of 1st and 2nd Nephi). I will be lifting most of my ideas directly from Joe Spencer’s seminary lesson podcasts from last December (see here) and a mansucript of his on the Book of Mormon that is under review for publication. First, however, let me provide some links to other online material for this lesson:

Times and Seasons post from 4 years ago (I think these are Jim F.’s notes, though Gordon Smith posted them)

Teacher’s manual from lds.org

Commentary on 2 Nephi 11-25 from the wiki

Commentary on Isaiah 6 from the wiki (there is quite a bit of commentary on this chapter, much of which Joe Spencer posted, before he wrote his manuscript and taught seminary)

Meridian Magazine notes (by Breck England)

ldsgospeldoctrine.net links


In Joe’s post for the previous lesson he discussed the overall structure of 1st and 2nd Nephi. I will not repeat his arguments, but I will summarize his view for convenience here (the chiastic structuring and naming is my own addition, since I think it’s helpful to link this structure up with the chiastic structure we frequently encounter in scripture):

* 1 Nephi 1 to 18: Creation of Lehites
** 1 Nephi 19 to 2 Nephi 5: Fall of Lehites
** 2 Nephi 6 to 30: Undoing of the fall of Lehites (i.e., atonement)
* 2 Nephi 31 to 33: New creation of Lehites (restoration, beyond the veil)

In Joe’s notes for the previous lesson, he talked about 2 Nephi 6 to 30 being the part of Nephi’s record that is “more sacred.” Looking more closely at the structure of 2 Nephi 6 to 30 we can discern the following structure:

* Jacob’s words (6-11) [note: 2 Nephi 7-8 quote Isaiah 50-51]
** Isaiah’s words (12-24) [this is a quote of Isaiah 2-14]
* Nephi’s words (25-30) [note: 2 Nephi 27 is a midrash of Isa 29]

Again, this is something Joe discussed a fair bit in his previous post. I’d like to look specifically the structure of the 2 Nephi 12-24 (Isaiah 2-14) passage in more depth. This is a rather peculiar set of chapters for Nephi to quote since most Isaiah scholars takes Isaiah 2-12 as a unit, with chapters 13 and 14 beginning a new unit of material that extends to chatper 24. However, if we consider Isaiah 2-14 as their own unit, we can discern the following structure:

* Oracle against Judah (2 Nephi 12-14; Isaiah 2-4)
** Oracle against Israel (2 Nephi 15; Isaiah 5)
*** Isaiah’s call to prophesy (2 Nephi 16; Isaiah 6)
** Oracle against Assyria, Israel’s destroyer (2 Nephi 17-18; Isaiah 7-12)
* Oracle against Babylon, Judah’s destroyer (2 Nephi 23-24; Isaiah 13-14)

This puts Isaiah 6 at the heart of the Isaiah’s words, which comprises the heart of the 3rd part of Nephi’s book, which comprises the heart of Nephi’s “more sacred” writings. So, Isaiah 6 seems very important to Nephi. But why? And how are we to understand Isaiah 6?

Isaiah 6: The command to harden hearts

Verses 9-10 of Isaiah 6 are difficult to make sense of:

And he said, Go, and tell this people, Hear ye indeed, but understand not; and see ye indeed, but perceive not. Make the heart of this people fat, and make their ears heavy, and shut their eyes; lest they see with their eyes, and hear with their ears, and understand with their heart, and convert, and be healed.

Why is Isaiah commanded to effectively harden the heart of the people, so that they will not be converted? Why would a loving God give Isaiah a commission that is worded this way?

Many scholars have offered answers to this question, and the ever-increasing number of studies is itself testimony to the unsatisfactory nature of the answers offered. Most scholars basically do violence to the text in order to avoid the theological unpleantries this verse, as it stands, forces us to confront. I think the best answer, however, may be that there is in fact no tidy answer to this question, and that this is sort of like Jim F. has argued regarding the problem of evil (see here): to “solve” the problem is to miss the point of the problem, which is to keep the problem alive in us.

To put this in a way that is far too simplistic but hopefully suggestive: suppose everyone was (were? I can never remember the rules for subjunctive formulations!) perfect. If this were the case, how would God’s grace be known? My claim is that there would be no need for grace in such a world, and thus grace could not really be known. Similarly, suppose the fall had not occurred. Then, my claim—and here I’m obviously parroting Lehi in 2 Nephi 2—is that there would be no such thing as happiness because there would be no misery. My point is that I think there is good reason for Mormons to think about this passage of Isaiah in the same way that we think the fall in the Garden, that Isaiah’s message “had to” be rejected for reasons similar as to why Adam and Eve “had to” be kicked out of the Garden—namely, so that there could be posterity and spiritual growth, and so that we could come to a(n experiential) knowledge of God’s goodness and love.

Isaiah 6: More on structure and context

Looking at the passages just before Isaiah 2-14 is quoted (2 Nephi 12-24), we find two passages that look quite similar forming what could be argued is a kind of inclusio for the Isaianic chapters. First, consider the repetition of the three words grace, reconciliation and saved/salvation in 2 Nephi 10:24 and 2 Nephi 25:23 (emphasis mine):

2 Ne 10:24: “Wherefore, my beloved brethren, reconcile yourselves to the will of God, and not to the will of the devil and the flesh; and remember, after ye are reconciled unto God, that it is only in and through the grace of God that ye are saved.”

2 Ne 25:23 : “[B]e reconciled to God; for we know that it is by grace that we are saved, after all we can do.”

Notice that 2 Nephi 25:23 plays an important role in giving us the context for all of the Isaiah chapters that Nephi quotes, and it is notorious for a grace-works tension that has inspired (or provoked…) a significant amount of discussion between Mormon and Christian theologians (I’m thinking of Stephen Robinson and Robert Millet especially). I think it’s helpful to think of this tension in light of Isaiah 6:9-10: if our works were perfect, there would not be any need for God’s grace; but, on the other hand, if God’s grace were sufficient by itself, then there would be no need for us to engage in good works. In this sense, these issues seem related to what Moroni tells us in Ether 12:27, that “God give[s] unto men weakness” so that we can be humble and thus recognize and appreciate the depth of God’s grace and love for us.

(I also just noticed a comment posted on the wiki by Yvonne S here that takes up this parallelism between 2 Ne 10:24 and 25:23 with particular attention to the word after as it appears in these two verses—some interesting thoughts to consider there.)

The passage immediately following 2 Nephi 25:23 is also worth considering because it talks about the relationship between Christ and the law of Moses, and it might be profitably taken up alongside 2 Nephi 11:4 which also addresses the relation between the law of Moses and Christ (in accordance with what the chiastic structure discussed above would predict), this time in an explicitly typological (“typifying”) relationship:

2 Ne 11:4: Behold, my soul delighteth in proving unto my people the truth of the coming of Christ; for, for this end hath the law of Moses been given; and all things which have been given of God from the beginning of the world, unto man, are the typifying of him.

2 Ne 25:25-27: For, for this end was the law given; wherefore the law hath become dead unto us, and we are made alive in Christ because of our faith; yet we keep the law because of the commandments. And we talk of Christ, we rejoice in Christ, we preach of Christ, we prophesy of Christ, and we write according to our prophecies, that our children may know to what source they may look for a remission of their sins. Wherefore, we speak concerning the law that our children may know the deadness of the law; and they, by knowing the deadness of the law, may look forward unto that life which is in Christ, and know for what end the law was given. And after the law is fulfilled in Christ, that they need not harden their hearts against him when the law ought to be done away.

Now, consider the similarity between the deadness of the law of Moses and the way in which Isaiah’s words are to have a hardening/damning effect on his listeners. Might Nephi be giving us a clue here as to how to read Isaiah 6:9-10 in the words that he has offered just before and just after the 13 chapter stretch quoting Isaiah? Isaiah’s words, just like the law of Moses, will have a damning effect from which we will need Christ to deliver us—and this is how God’s grace and goodness will be made manifest, only after the deadness of the law and the prophets is made manifest.

Well, of course this post is hardly scratching the surface of the issues raised in this week’s reading, and I’m doing a very poor job of conveying how much content is available in Joe’s podcast seminary lessons and his manuscript on the Book of Mormon. But I do hope that this helps others in thinking about a possible way to consider what’s going on in this notoriously difficult stretch of 2 Nephi, and a way to think about the all-important theme of grace as it appears in the writings of Nephi and Isaiah, as well as in the writings of Mormon and Moroni—after all, notice that the Book of Mormon itself closes with a discussion of Christ’s grace and a quotation of Isaiah (cf. Moroni 10:31 and Isaiah 52:1-2; 54:2-4).

2 Responses to “BoM Lesson 9: 2 Nephi 11-25”

  1. Kim M. said

    Marvelous work, Robert! You’ve managed to explain the structure of Nephi’s record in a way I’ve never quite understood before. Thank you!

  2. Jim F. said

    Rober, you are either showing your age or that you’ve studied a foreign language. Most Americans don’t know what the subjunctive is, much less worry about how to form it.

    You’ve done an incredible job of putting together a lot of material from all over the place. Thanks very much. This is just in time for me to prepare for the lesson I’m teaching this Sunday.

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