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Towards a Thinking of Remnant Theology in the Book of Mormon

Posted by joespencer on February 5, 2010

As part of a larger research project, I’ve been doing some reading on remnant theology. (Allow me to recommend Gerhard Hasel’s The Remnant, so far as I can find the only full-length study of the theme, and he traces it only until the time of [First] Isaiah.) What first interested me in the theme was the employment of Micah by Christ in Third Nephi. Importantly, everything Christ quotes from Micah deals with the theme of the remnant. Arguably, the entire book of Micah is built around this theme: each of its several sections is structured around a discussion of the remnant. At any rate, in the work of sorting out what is at work in Micah on the remnant theology, I’ve been struck by how ridiculously present the theme of the remnant is throughout the Book of Mormon. My plan here is to begin to sort out something of what’s going on in the Book of Mormon with the question of the remnant—here in broad terms, and in a follow-up post starting into the detail by beginning, of course, with Nephi.

The Basic Idea

The theme of the remnant is, generally speaking, something like the connecting point between an unusable past and a future filled with hope: a remnant is what is left after some kind of destructive event, and its very existence is what secures the possibility of a continuance into the future. This positive usage can, of course, be inverted, and often is, with the formula “no remnant,” a sign of complete annihilation.

The Old Testament

Hasel opens his study with an analysis of the theme of the remnant in the larger Ancient Near Eastern (ANE) context, showing that theological use of the theme was hardly unique to Israel. However, as he transitions from the larger historical setting to the specific usages within the Israelite tradition, it is clear that Israel gives the theme a characteristically unique inflection. The book of Genesis employs the theme several times over, tracing something of a trajectory away from the standard ANE treatment: if the theme appears in the Noah/flood story as it does in neighboring cultures (particularly in their flood myths), it is given its unique Israelite emphasis in the Abraham and Jacob stories. Through these, the theme comes to be intertwined with the election tradition: in the Abraham story, Abraham’s conversation with the Lord about Sodom (Genesis 18) lays emphasis on God’s mercy, an important turn in the Genesis story; and in the Jacob story, Jacob is intent on ensuring that a remnant of his seed survives because of the promise. The theme then shows up in the prophets of the Northern Kingdom, first in the non-writing prophet Elijah, but then much more emphatically in the writing prophet, Amos. Significantly, the book of Amos traces a development from universally negative uses of the theme (likely against a “popular” remnant theology) to a culminating turn to the positive, to a remnant that might survive the desperate destruction Amos announced. This basic theology was adopted by Isaiah in the Southern Kingdom and worked over in detail and at great length. The entire book of Isaiah is saturated with the theme of the remnant. Through and after Isaiah (as well as in his contemporary, Micah), the theme becomes positive: the remnant becomes that thing that the Lord of History constructs through the events He sets in order, and that remnant comes to be associated with the eschaton, etc.

It is worth mentioning also that the Book of Moses adds a highly theological addition to the Old Testament remnant theology in Moses 7:52. It deserves individual attention sometime.

The New Testament

It is worth mentioning, though I will only do so briefly, that the theme is resuscitated in the New Testament by, of all people, Saint Paul. Paul’s remnant theology is something I’ve not yet had the time to explore in any detail, though I plan to do so soon. I will recommend two books by Giorgio Agamben on the theme: The Time that Remains and Remnants of Auschwitz. As Agamben interprets him, Paul employs the remnant theme in a way that universalizes (by dehistoricizing) it: the remnant is less a question of what is left after some particular devastation than what is at the core of human existence as such—a figure of what it is to live in grace after the Messiah has already come. Because I don’t see the Book of Mormon following the Pauline route in this case, I’ll leave things here at that for the moment.

In the Book of Mormon

I assume that the remnant theology found its way into the Book of Mormon first primarily through the influence of Isaiah. Some of the more important remnant passages from Isaiah appear in the Isaiah quotations of Second Nephi, in particular Isaiah 4 (=2 Nephi 14), Isaiah 6-8 (=2 Nephi 16-18), Isaiah 10-11 (=2 Nephi 20-21), and Isaiah 14 (=2 Nephi 14). It would seem that Nephi was attentive to these themes, since he introduces the question of the remnant into his writings in a number of places where he is not specifically reading Isaiah: 1 Nephi 10:14; 13:33-34, 38-39; 15:13-14; 19:24; 2 Nephi 28:2; 30:3-4.

True to the general Book of Mormon pattern—according to which Nephi’s most wonted themes disappear for the most part after the small plates come to a close only to resurface with a fury in Third Nephi—the remnant theme drops out for the most part of the books of Mosiah, Alma, and Helaman. The word itself does appear a few times in what might be called “secular” settings (whether it refers only to battle situations, in order to describe survivors). And there is the major exception of Alma 46, where Captain Moroni works out a massive remnant theology in terms of Jacob’s ancient prophecy concerning the remnant of Joseph’s torn coat. But apart from these few instances, the theme entirely disappears.

But it does come back in Third Nephi. There it appears even in anticipation of Christ’s coming in 3 Nephi 5:23-24; 10:16-17. But it only becomes a consistent theme once Christ begins His systematic discourses about the covenant: 3 Nephi 15:12; 16:4; 20:10, 13, 16; 21:2, 4, 12, 22-23, 26. Mormon concludes his account of the event by making one final reference to the remnant in 3 Nephi 29:8. In Third Nephi, interestingly, Christ does not draw on Isaiah in His expositions of the remnant, but instead on Micah (as already mentioned above), particularly in chapters 20 and 21.

Once Christ has visited the Lehites, the theme of the remnant appears with some regularity in the history: 4 Nephi 1:49; Mormon 3:19; 5:9, 12, 24; 7:1, 10; Ether 13:6-8, 10.

So What?

Of course, I haven’t even begun to do the theological work of interpretation of theme here—not even so much as begun to spell out the basic importance of the theme. I promise that will come in a few follow-up posts. My intention here was only to set up the posts that will follow, and perhaps to grab the attention of anyone here who has raised questions on their own about the theme of the remnant in the Book of Mormon.

Expect a second post soon on the theme of the remnant in the Isaiah chapters, followed by a post on the appropriation of Isaiah’s remnant theme in First and Second Nephi.

16 Responses to “Towards a Thinking of Remnant Theology in the Book of Mormon”

  1. RobF said

    Look forward to your posts. As I think about this I’m wondering if there is any connection at all between the rent garment/spotless garment metaphors?

  2. Robert C. said

    Joe, I’ve thought about this a bit and hopefully I’ll be able to contribute something helpful as you work through your posts (we’ll see).

    For now, I’ve wondered about Christ’s invocation of Micah rather than Isaiah. As you’ve discussed elsewhere, it’s interesting how various parts of Isaiah are quoted in the Book of Mormon, basically in the order that we have them in our Old Testament. To my mind, this raises significant issues that need to be addressed regarding the role of redaction, editing, compilation and translation that really need to be reckoned with.

    A couple brief possibilities that come to mind: Might there have been a significant redaction event around the time of Christ, comparable to the Josiah reforms, that would help us make sense of this remarkable continuit that culminates with Christ’s simultaneous affirmation of Isaiah and move toward Malachi? Or would it make more sense to read this as Mormon’s (probably not Moroni’s) work? And what role did Joseph Smith (or, let’s say “God through Joseph Smith” to leave maximal room for thinking various versions of his inspiration and translation process) play in his obvious use of the KJV in his translation?

    Also, I hope you will address at some point, if only briefly, the various interpretive traditions since the Restoration of this doctrine. I’m thinking particularly of Pres. Kimball’s many statements regarding the remnant as the Lamanites/Native Americans. I’ll need to study up on these themes, but if I recall, it seems Nephi and other BOM writers used remnant language primarily in reference to the remnant of their own people, and the role of the Gentiles in restoring their people (and this is how Pres. Kimball became so interested in the missions to the Native Americans; I read George P. Lee’s autobiography way back when, and so I suppose I’m very interested in eventually mapping up these themes with the modern Church and its relationship with Native Americans, missionary work in South America, interracial relations more generally, etc., etc.).

  3. http://kingofages.wordpress.com/2010/02/05/the-prophets-warn-samaria-and-judah-gods-covenant-part-3/

  4. kirkcaudle said

    Robert, I am currently writing on Josiah reforms and your comments on them in this context is an extremely worth while thing to ponder on. I have not thought about the reforms in the context on 3 Nephi, but I am now.

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  10. kimmatheson said

    I’m really glad you’ve brought my attention to this question, Joe. It’s a question I should have been asking all along but never thought to take on so directly. Thanks!

  11. joespencer said

    Sure thing, Kim. You’re aware that there is a whole series of these posts, and I’ve got at least two more coming.

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