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The Remnant in the Book of Mormon: The Isaiah Chapters

Posted by joespencer on February 10, 2010

In the introductory post to this series of posts on remnant theology in the Book of Mormon, I mentioned my suspicion that the Nephite interest in the theme of the remnant is rooted first in the Nephite interest in Isaiah. Here, then, I would like to spell out (1) a few details concerning the place of Isaiah within the Book of Mormon generally, (2) something of a schema for the way that Nephi employs Isaiah within his two-book contribution to the Book of Mormon, and (3) the basics of the remnant theology as these are outlined in the “Isaiah chapters” of Second Nephi. All of this will set up the next post I’ll do on the remnant theology, in which I’ll take a look at Nephi’s employment of the theme apart from the Isaiah material.

Isaiah in the Book of Mormon

As I read the Book of Mormon, I see two Isaiah trajectories at work in the text. On the one hand, there is the “First Isaiah” trajectory: in 2 Nephi 12-24, Nephi quotes Isaiah 2-14 in the very order these chapters appear in our Old Testament. On the other hand, there is the “Second Isaiah” trajectory: in 1 Nephi 20-21; 2 Nephi 7-8; Mosiah 12-16; and 3 Nephi 22 the Nephite volume quotes Isaiah 48-54 more or less in the very order these chapters appear in our Old Testament.* I believe these two trajectories serve distinct purposes (elsewhere I’ve worked out these purposes and their intertwining at some length), something marked by the fact that it seems to be only Nephi who bothers with First Isaiah, while the quotations of Second Isaiah stretch through the whole of the Book of Mormon, making up a kind of backbone for the larger history. Whatever might be at work in the dispersed quotations of Second Isaiah, I want to focus this discussion on Nephi’s quotation of First Isaiah, in what usually go by the name of the “Isaiah chapters.” The reason for this narrower focus? Quite simply: Isaiah 2-14 as quoted in Second Nephi is completely saturated by the theme of the remnant, while Isaiah 48-54 as quoted here and there throughout the Book of Mormon make no explicit references to the theme of the remnant—though one can argue that the latter chapters detail the doings of the remnant without ever bothering to name the remnant. In the end, I think questions do need to be raised about Second Isaiah and the remnant, but I won’t raise them in this post. Whatever the Nephites inherited about the idea of the remnant as such they seem to have inherited from First Isaiah. In my subsequent posts on the further Nephite employment of the remnant theme, I will deal with the Nephite employment of Second Isaiah in relation to the remnant theology.

First Isaiah in Nephi

As I read the two books of Nephi, I find the Isaiah chapters as being very heavily contextualized. A number of indications in Nephi’s record make clear that the two books can be divided up into four stretches, arranged in a theologically significant pattern. The four sections are (1) 1 Nephi 1-18, which tells of the “creation” of the Lehite civilization; (2) 1 Nephi 19-2 Nephi 5, which tells of the “division” of the same civilization, with one half of the civilization being cut off from the presence of the Lord; (3) 2 Nephi 6-30, which tells (prophetically) of the (eventual) “reconciliation” of the Lamanites to the covenant and their restoration to the presence of the Lord; and (4) 2 Nephi 31-33, which tells of the ordinance of reconciliation (baptism, etc.) and frames it as a kind of limit point, employing primarily “veil” imagery. The pattern, in short, is a pattern of creation, fall, atonement, and passing-through-the-veil. (There are several points of caution and clarification that should be added at this point, but I’ll leave them out for the sake of getting to Isaiah.) As Nephi’s discussion in 1 Nephi 19:1-6 makes quite clear, the third of these three sections is the privileged focus of the record, constituting what he calls the “more sacred,” as well as what he identifies as the only “commanded,” part of his text.

Taking a look, then, at the basic structure of the atonement/reconciliation portion of Nephi’s record, it is clearly divided into three parts: (a) 2 Nephi 6-10, Jacob’s contribution to the discussion of the Lehite reconciliation; (b) 2 Nephi 11-24, Isaiah’s contribution to the discussion of the Lehite reconciliation; (c) 2 Nephi 25-30, Nephi’s contribution to the discussion of the Lehite reconciliation. (Elder Holland thus speaks of these chapters as presenting “three sentinels who stand at the gate in order to usher us into the scriptural presence of the Lord,” quoting roughly.) That Isaiah is the privileged core of this stretch of Nephi’s record is quite clear from, in addition to other indications, the fact that Jacob’s and Nephi’s contributions to this part of the text are both in part further quotations of and commentaries on texts from Isaiah (Jacob quotes and comments on Isaiah 50-51 and a few verses from Isaiah 49; Nephi quotes and comments on Isaiah 29 and a few verses from Isaiah 11). In large part, 2 Nephi 6-30 is a proffering of and guide to reading Isaiah.

In short, then, it appears that the most privileged part of the most privileged part of Nephi’s record is precisely the stretch of chapters that we as Latter-day Saints tend to avoid: the Isaiah chapters (Isaiah 2-14) of 2 Nephi 12-24. It is precisely here that one must apparently focus if one is going to make any sense of what Nephi is trying to accomplish.

On the Isaiah Chapters As Such

Nephi thus chooses to make Isaiah 2-14 the very core of his record. These chapters are not, I think, lightly chosen (I’ve noticed an occasional tendency among Latter-day Saints to assume that Nephi just began, more or less, with the beginning of Isaiah and then quit when he grew sick of copying text). They are, as I think I have already made clear, more focused than any other stretch of chapters in Isaiah’s record on the theme of the remnant, as well as on what I have elsewhere called Isaiah’s “theology of writing” (I’ve come only recently to recognize that this question of writing is completely intertwined in Isaiah with the theme of the remnant). So what is so significant about these chapters in particular?

Significantly, Nephi quotes the chapters from Isaiah (1) that critique both the Northern and Southern kingdoms most directly and with the longest series of specific accusations (Isaiah 2-5=2 Nephi 12-15); (2) that then go on to lay out the Lord’s counter-response to Israel’s infidelity by recounting the call of Isaiah to prophesy (Isaiah 6=2 Nephi 16); (3) that subsequently lay out the implications of that call’s remarkably negative character, particularly in terms of a shift in the nature of Israelite prophecy (Isaiah 7-8=2 Nephi 17-18); (4) that then embrace this shift by prophesying of an era to come after the nations have fallen (Isaiah 9-12=2 Nephi 19-22); and (5) that concludes with a specific application of the theme of the fall of the nations to the enemy of Nephi’s day, namely, Babylon (Isaiah 13-14=2 Nephi 23-24). All of this is, I think, quite clearly connected with Nephi’s most intimate prophetic concerns, and it gives shape to everything he wants to say about it. And crucially, all of these chapters, even in their step-by-step progression through the themes I’ve laid out, turn on the question of the remnant.

I’ll turn now, then, to a preliminary articulation of the remnant theme in these chapters, fitting it into the larger progression of themes laid out here.

The Remnant in the Isaiah Chapters

The first appearance of the remnant theme in the Isaiah chapters is in Isaiah 4=2 Nephi 14. Here, after one and immediately before another harsh condemnation of Israel, there is a word about the remnant that will survive the promised destruction. Here is the passage:

3 And it shall come to pass, they that are left in Zion and remain in Jerusalem shall be called holy, every one that is written among the living in Jerusalem—
4 When the Lord shall have washed away the filth of the daughters of Zion, and shall have purged the blood of Jerusalem from the midst thereof by the spirit of judgment and by the spirit of burning.
5 And the Lord will create upon every dwelling-place of mount Zion, and upon her assemblies, a cloud and smoke by day and the shining of a flaming fire by night; for upon all the glory of Zion shall be a defence.
6 And there shall be a tabernacle for a shadow in the daytime from the heat, and for a place of refuge, and a covert from storm and from rain.

The words “they that are left” in verse 3 translate the Hebrew word hnsh’r, constructed from the root sh’r, “remnant.” Here it is clear that the remnant is what is left after the destruction of Israel (by foreign enemies specifically), and that these will become part of a new exodus of sorts (the cloud/smoke by day and flaming fire by night, etc.). More significantly still, though, this first appearance of the theme in the Isaiah chapters is marked by a perfect intertwining with the theme of writing: the remnant consists of “every one that is written among the living in Jerusalem.” More literally, the phrase might be translated: “all those written for/unto life in Jerusalem.” Those who will make up the remnant are those whose names are written. The importance of this connection between the remnant and the written will become clear, I think, in the discussion of Isaiah 6-8.

Isaiah 6=2 Nephi 16 contains the second obvious reference to the remnant, and Gerhard Hasel makes a good case for this having been the earliest one Isaiah would have inscribed, since it is associated directly with his call (Hasel argues for Isaianic authorship of the entire chapter). After Isaiah’s experience with the angelic council (a familiar enough story), he receives his commission: he is, rather shockingly, to deliver a message that sounds like it is meant to condemn the people. Many have struggled with the implications of this passage, and some have even suggested that the Book of Mormon’s slight adjustment of the language solves the problem—though this is not, strictly speaking, true, since Royal Skousen’s work on the text has shown that there was some kind of copying error that introduced the “saving” difference into the text. We are left with the work of facing up to the theological difficulty of Isaiah’s call. The best treatment of it I’ve been able to find (and Hasel too embraces this same approach) is that of Gerhard von Rad, in his Old Testament Theology (vol. 2, pp. 147-175): the idea of God’s actually hardening the hearts of the people to whom He sends Isaiah fits into the larger OT theological perspective (according to which God hardens hearts in order to accomplish His work), and it makes a good deal of sense of the larger Isaianic project. The idea here is that Isaiah marks a genuine revolution in Israelite prophetic thought: forced to prophesy in a situation that he knows is hopeless and to a people that he knows will not listen, Isaiah turns from the present (the obvious focus of ninth-century prophecy) to the future (the new focus of eighth-century prophecy), as well as from oral messages (always reported in the third person in historical narratives for the ninth-century prophets) to the written oracle (gathered into books beginning with the eighth-century prophets). Here, then, without yet even coming to the point of Isaiah 6 where the remnant gets mentioned, there is arguably already a turn to the theme of writing: Isaiah is a writing prophet precisely because of the way that the Lord has begun to work with/against His people, and the work of writing or of putting together a book is in part the work of looking forward to a time still to come.

What ultimately grounds the future orientation of Isaiah, and what ultimately justifies his focus on writing, though, is not just the hardening of the hearts of his contemporaries, but this hardening coupled with the promise of the remnant. And this is what verses 11-13 of Isaiah 6 deal with. These verses report the Lord’s response to Isaiah’s question “How long?” (i.e. “How long will it be that the damning message needs to be delivered?). I’ll quote Hasel’s helpful translation:

And he said:
‘Until cities lie waste
without inhabitants,
and houses without men,
and the land is left a desert,
and Yahweh removes men far away,
and desolation is great in the midst of the land.
And though a tenth remain in it,
it will be consumed again,
like a terebinth or an oak,
of which, at felling, a stock remains.
A holy seed is its stock.’

The idea is relatively clear here: Isaiah’s message must be delivered until the destruction has left the tree of Israel is nothing but a stump. But that stump will be the remnant, a “holy seed” that will again sprout (as described in Isaiah 11=2 Nephi 21). This promise to Isaiah that something would remain, that there would be a remnant, is what allows Isaiah to begin to focus on the future, on a future people who will hear the message that his contemporaries reject, and so what allows Isaiah to begin to focus on writing, on putting his words into a form that will survive until that remnant is prepared to read them.

This becomes particularly clear in Isaiah 7-8=2 Nephi 17-18. Here the theme of the remnant becomes still more strikingly clear. When the Syrians and the Ephraimites decide to make a coalition to rebel against Assyria and determine to attack Jerusalem in an attempt to force Judah to join with them, Judah’s king, Ahaz, naturally becomes frightened. Isaiah is told to go out to meet him, and he is told to take his son with him, his son appropriately named Shear-jashub. Shear-jashub, literally, “the remnant shall return” or “the remnant shall be converted.” (The verb shub that is conjugated as “jashub” in the name is the same verb used in Isaiah 6:9, “lest they . . . be converted.”) Of course, if this one of Isaiah’s sons has a promising name (and Isaiah must have named him some years before this particular event—the guy is giving his kids names associated with the remnant theology!), chapter 8 deals with another of his kids with a much unhappier name: Maher-shalal-hash-baz, literally, “destruction comes quickly.” But the destruction indicated in the second child’s name points also to the remnant that will be left after the destruction, a remnant that will be the seed of all future salvation. And thus it is in chapter 8 that Isaiah begins to associate all of this with the turn to the future and the assumption of the task of writing, tying it specifically to the names (“signs”) of his children:

16 Bind up the testimony, seal the law among my disciples.
17 And I will wait upon the Lord, that hideth his face from the house of Jacob, and I will look for him.
18 Behold, I and the children whom the Lord hath given me are for signs and for wonders in Israel from the Lord of Hosts, which dwelleth in Mount Zion.
19 And when they shall say unto you: Seek unto them that have familiar spirits, and unto wizards that peep and mutter—should not a people seek unto their God for the living to hear from the dead?
20 To the law and to the testimony; and if they speak not according to this word, it is because there is no light in them.

The question of destruction (“Maher-shalal-hash-baz”) and the subsequently returning remnant (“Shear-jashub”) is the basic theme of First Isaiah: the destruction is, in some ways, an act of grace that will allow for the construction of a remnant that will be the core of the fulfillment of the covenant.

Thus it is that Isaiah 9-12=2 Nephi 19-22 can lay out the Lord’s dealings with Assyria as a double promise: on the one hand, it is the promise of a messianic figure who will rule over the remnant still to come, and on the other hand, it is the promise of that remnant itself. Isaiah 10:21, in fact, specifically says, in the Hebrew, shear jashub, “the remnant shall return!” That all of this emerges out of a massive destruction leads Isaiah to one of his most concise formulations of his theology, found in 10:22: “the consumption decreed shall overflow with righteousness.” At any rate, in these chapters we have a prophecy of the stump (from Isaiah 6) sprouting, of the remnant being gathered “the second time,” and of all of this resulting in a climactic song of praise (Isaiah 12).

Of course, Nephi will take this in a curious direction: fixating on the language of “the second time,” Nephi will assume that Isaiah has reference here not to a gathering of the remnant after the destruction of Jerusalem at the hands of Assyria or Babylon, but to a gathering of the remnant still to come at the end of time, a gathering Nephi had seen in vision. But we’ll be getting to Nephi soon enough.

For now, let me finish this brief survey of the remnant theology in the Isaiah chapters by pointing to the brief mention of the theme in Isaiah 13-14=2 Nephi 23-24. There, after all of the promises concerning the gathering of the remnant after Jerusalem’s destruction, etc., the remnant theme is tied to Babylon! And this, it is clear, is of particular significant to Nephi. Ironically, though, the remnant appears here in a strictly negative usage. The crucial text is Isaiah 14:22: “For I will rise up against them, saith the LORD of hosts, and cut off from Babylon the name, and remnant, and son, and nephew, saith the LORD.” The idea is quite clear: if Israel will be left a remnant with an important future, Babylon will be left without any such remnant. (Hasel points out the obvious reading here: “remnant” is used as a synonym for “children of the Babylonian king.) There will be no chance for Babylon to regroup and determine its future continuance, since it will be left without remnant. The salvation of Israel thus has to be seen in terms of the destruction of all the other nations: Israel’s remnant will be what remains after the Lord has done His work on the world.

And so on. What I’ve worked out here is merely a sketch, but perhaps a helpful one. At the very least, it provides a kind of doorway into the Book of Mormon usage of the theme, which I’ll begin to take up—in terms of Nephi first—with my next post on the remnant theology.


[*] I label these two trajectories the “First Isaiah” and “Second Isaiah” trajectories because each stretch of Isaiah material is respectively drawn from two parts of the book of Isaiah scholars have labeled First Isaiah and Second Isaiah respectively. The scholarly consensus is, of course, that these two parts of the book were the products of completely different authors or even authorial traditions. I’m not terribly concerned about who historically wrote or constructed the books. So far as the Book of Mormon is concerned at the historical level, they need only have been written and gathered together into a single volume by the time of Lehi’s departure from Jerusalem. What scholars call Third Isaiah—that is, Isaiah 56-66—need not have been written at all by that point, since it never appears in the Book of Mormon. My own suspicion is that a text that would look something like what we now have as Isaiah 2-55 was circulating by the time of the departure for the New World. (Incidentally, it is not uncommon for biblical scholars to suggest that a volume something like Isaiah 2-55 was circulating in Judah for some time before Third Isaiah was written and attached the volume. Of course, most scholars assign the writing of Isaiah 40-55 and the construction of such a combined First/Second Isaiah volume to the time of the exile, shortly after the departure of Lehi from Jerusalem.)

11 Responses to “The Remnant in the Book of Mormon: The Isaiah Chapters”

  1. […] The Remnant in the Book of Mormon: The Isaiah Chapters « Feast … […]

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  4. robf said

    Very helpful and provocative. Time to go back and read those Isaiah chapters!

  5. Robert C. said

    Great stuff, Joe. The way you’ve cast this notion of remnant in terms of seed nicely ties this to the covenant of Abraham, etc. (which is on my brain, not only because this is such an important topic in the Book of Mormon, but because of Paul Williamson’s interesting writing on the topic which I summarized at the end of this post).

    Also, I hope at some point you’re planning to take up “remnant” as it’s used on the title page of the Book of Mormon (also very much in the context of the covenant…).

  6. […] The Remnant in the Book of Mormon: The Isaiah Chapters […]

  7. […] The Remnant in the Book of Mormon: The Isaiah Chapters […]

  8. […] that after an initial period of development—the original theme being drawn in part from Isaiah and in part from Nephi’s visions—the theme seems to have gone more or less unrecognized […]

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  10. […] by joespencer on March 24, 2010 In a series of posts (see here and here and here and here and here and here), I have worked through the basic contours of the remnant […]

  11. […] I did a long series of posts here at Feast on the theme of the remnant in scripture. (See here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, and here.) That crucial theme, worked out over the […]

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