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The Remnant in the Book of Mormon: First and Second Nephi

Posted by joespencer on February 16, 2010

Following up on my discussion of the remnant in the Isaiah chapters, I want now to take up Nephi’s several references to the remnant throughout his two books. My hope is that I’ll be able to see some kind of coherent theology taking shape. In particular, I’m interested to see how Nephi might be drawing on and even reshaping Isaiah in his construction of the theology. I’m also interested to see if there is any indication that Nephi’s interest in the remnant theology might have led him to Isaiah, rather than his interest in Isaiah having led him to the remnant theology. We’ll see what becomes clear in the course of this discussion.

The Foundation of Nephite Remnant Theology?

One might expect Nephi to serve as a kind of relay point for the remnant theology: as the careful reader of Isaiah who is situated at the very beginning of Nephite history, it would seem natural that Nephi would have drawn the remnant theology from Isaiah, formulated it in a definitely Nephite fashion, and then handed that tradition on to his children. There is, even from the beginning, at least one significant problem with this picture: Nephi’s descendants never really seem to draw on what he has to say about the remnant theology. Significantly, the theme of the remnant almost entirely disappears after Nephi’s writings until its reappearance in Third Nephi. (There are a few exceptions, which I’ll be taking up in another post, but these exceptions all betray a kind of ignorance of Nephi’s contributions to the theme.) And, importantly, when the theme resurfaces in Third Nephi, it resurfaces for the most part through the direct intervention of the visiting Christ, not through some kind of “return to the small plates.” And, also significantly, the theme as Christ takes it up with the Nephites and Lamanites seems to have been drawn less from Isaiah than from Micah.

From all this, it seems that what we’re really looking at when we study Nephi’s discussions of the remnant is a kind of lost nucleus of thinking about the theme. Though I will here certainly be at work on what must be called the earliest instance of the Nephite remnant theology, it has to be confessed that this earliest instance was essentially lost to most subsequent generations, perhaps until Mormon and Moroni, and they might only have recognized its importance after Mormon had done his abridgment work on Third Nephi. At any rate, it must be recognized that what follows is a study of a kind of lost theological reflection, a rich flowering of thought that was sadly missed or even ignored after it was completed.

The First Appearance: 1 Nephi 10:14

Studying the “growth” of any theological theme through First and Second Nephi is a dangerous task: Nephi wrote the small plates some thirty-and-something years after his family left Jerusalem. By the time he was reconstructing his story and compiling the “more sacred” teachings that made up his record, he had likely already sorted out his theological views. That said, it is worth noting that no word at all concerning the remnant appears in 1 Nephi 1-9, a stretch of chapters clearly marked by the text as the first “half” of First Nephi (there is an explicit break at the beginning of chapter 10 that marks the second “half” of First Nephi). In many ways, 1 Nephi 10 is the theological start in the Book of Mormon. There, during a discourse associated with the telling of his famous dream (of the tree of life), Lehi is portrayed as outlining what will become Nephi’s most consistent themes. The remnant appears for the first time towards the end of this outline.

The verse:

14 And after the house of Israel should be scattered they should be gathered together again; or, in fine, after the Gentiles had received the fulness of the Gospel, the natural branches of the olive-tree, or the remnants of the house of Israel, should be grafted in, or come to the knowledge of the true Messiah, their Lord and their Redeemer.

A few initial points right from the get-go: (1) The gathering referred to here is eschatological, if it is to be read through the lens of Nephi’s many other discussions of these themes,. but eschatological with reference to a rather specified eschatology. (2) From the very first instance of the word “remnants” there is something different about the Lehite/Nephite theology of the remnant, since the word appears here in the plural, something it never does in the Old Testament discussions of the theme. (3) The remnants are to be grafted in rather than constituted, suggesting that the metaphor of the olive tree is more important to the logic than might at first appear.

Just with these three initial points, some distance is already set between the Old Testament (and Isaianic) notion of the remnant and the budding Book of Mormon notion. The (1) specificity, (2) plurality, and (3) substantiality of the remnant(s) described in 1 Nephi 10 outline a rather unique approach: it seems clear that the Lehite/Nephite idea has already (1) passed through the interpretive lens of Lehite apocalyptic foreknowledge, (2) been reframed by a belief in the existence of a number of scattered groups of self-identifying Israelites, and (3) been altered slightly to fit into what might be called a semi-secular understanding of history, distanced a bit from the Isaianic idea of a history absolutely lorded over by Jehovah.

This notion of the remnant, however, appears in Nephi’s summary of Lehi’s teachings. It is not clear whether Nephi is imputing to his father an understanding that he (Nephi) only came to later. Let me turn, then, to Nephi’s own development of the idea, to be found at a crucial point of his own massive apocalyptic vision (as well as in his explanation of the whole affair after the fact to Laman and Lemuel).

The Remnant in Nephi’s Vision

The word “remnant” appears six times in 1 Nephi 13:33-39 (and twice more in 1 Nephi 15:13-14). Allow me to quote verses 33-42:

33 Wherefore saith the Lamb of God: I will be merciful unto the Gentiles, unto the visiting of the remnant of the house of Israel in great judgment.
34 And it came to pass that the angel of the Lord spake unto me, saying: Behold, saith the Lamb of God, after I have visited the remnant of the house of Israel—and this remnant of whom I speak is the seed of thy father—wherefore, after I have visited them in judgment, and smitten them by the hand of the Gentiles, and after the Gentiles do stumble exceedingly, because of the most plain and precious parts of the gospel of the Lamb which have been kept back by that abominable church, which is the mother of harlots, saith the Lamb—I will be merciful unto the Gentiles in that day, insomuch that I will bring forth unto them, in mine own power, much of my gospel, which shall be plain and precious, saith the Lamb.
35 For, behold, saith the Lamb: I will manifest myself unto thy seed, that they shall write many things which I shall minister unto them, which shall be plain and precious; and after thy seed shall be destroyed, and dwindle in unbelief, and also the seed of thy brethren, behold, these things shall be hid up, to come forth unto the Gentiles, by the gift and power of the Lamb.
36 And in them shall be written my gospel, saith the Lamb, and my rock and my salvation.
37 And blessed are they who shall seek to bring forth my Zion at that day, for they shall have the gift and the power of the Holy Ghost; and if they endure unto the end they shall be lifted up at the last day, and shall be saved in the everlasting kingdom of the Lamb; and whoso shall publish peace, yea, tidings of great joy, how beautiful upon the mountains shall they be.
38 And it came to pass that I beheld the remnant of the seed of my brethren, and also the book of the Lamb of God, which had proceeded forth from the mouth of the Jew, that it came forth from the Gentiles unto the remnant of the seed of my brethren.
39 And after it had come forth unto them I beheld other books, which came forth by the power of the Lamb, from the Gentiles unto them, unto the convincing of the Gentiles and the remnant of the seed of my brethren, and also the Jews who were scattered upon all the face of the earth, that the records of the prophets and of the twelve apostles of the Lamb are true.
40 And the angel spake unto me, saying: These last records, which thou hast seen among the Gentiles, shall establish the truth of the first, which are of the twelve apostles of the Lamb, and shall make known the plain and precious things which have been taken away from them; and shall make known to all kindreds, tongues, and people, that the Lamb of God is the Son of the Eternal Father, and the Savior of the world; and that all men must come unto him, or they cannot be saved.
41 And they must come according to the words which shall be established by the mouth of the Lamb; and the words of the Lamb shall be made known in the records of thy seed, as well as in the records of the twelve apostles of the Lamb; wherefore they both shall be established in one; for there is one God and one Shepherd over all the earth.
42 And the time cometh that he shall manifest himself unto all nations, both unto the Jews and also unto the Gentiles; and after he has manifested himself unto the Jews and also unto the Gentiles, then he shall manifest himself unto the Gentiles and also unto the Jews, and the last shall be first, and the first shall be last.

The setting, at this point in Nephi’s vision, is that of the New World, just after the Gentiles have begun to claim it for their own. In verses 33-34, it is clear that “the remnant” consists of the remaining Lamanites at the time of the Restoration: “and this remnant of whom I speak is the seed of thy father,” Nephi is told. Interestingly, the Lamanites as a remnant are called, in these verses, not a remnant of Israel, but the remnant of Israel. There is, in other words, some distance between the talk of the several remnants in chapter 10 and the assignation to the Lamanites of the singular title “the remnant” in chapter 13. If the two texts are taken together, it would seem that—according to Nephi’s vision—while there are many remnants of Israel, all of them scattered about the world, the Lamanites constitute the remnant of Israel because they will play a kind of initiatory role in the reintroduction of the Abrahamic covenant into the world: the whole eschatological affair is to be launched by their reception of the Book of Mormon, it seems, and because they receive it at the hand of the increasingly apostate Gentiles, they mark the privileged point of contact between Israel and the Gentiles that will amount to the fulfillment of the ancient promises (in, for example, Second Isaiah).

Of course, as these verses describe it, this point of contact is at first horrendous: God’s mercy towards the Gentiles is described as an act of terrifying judgment on the remnant—presumably what is indicated here is the decimation of the Native Americans from Canada to Peru—that will eventually give way to more positive results. Those more positive results, introduced in verses 35-36, will be connected with the Book of Mormon. As in the Isaiah discussions of the remnant, Nephi’s vision of the remnant here is tied to the writing of a book that is then sealed up to come forth at a later time, to come forth specifically to the remnant of the people. Interestingly, though, as verses 37-39 make clear, the sealed book only comes to the remnant in this instance after the “book of the Lamb of God” (the Bible, it seems obvious) has been delivered to them by the Gentiles. And it is curious to note that in verses 38-39, when the vision describes the reception first of the Bible and then of the Book of Mormon among the Lamanites, the receiving people are described not as “the remnant of Israel” but as “the remnant of the seed of [Nephi’s] brethren.”

If this shift from one understanding of the remnant to another is odd, it is followed by a further complication of things: verses 40-42 not only lay out the relationship between the Book of Mormon and the Bible for the remnant (it seems that the former is meant to help the Lamanites receive the latter, which they were inclined to reject as foreign), but they also suggest that the contact between the Gentiles and Israel is preparatory to a relationship between the Gentiles and the Jews. All of these connections and details need to be worked out at length, but I’m here only trying to sketch an outline of what seems to be at work in the texts.

As mentioned above, Nephi twice uses the word “remnant” in his explanation of the vision to Laman and Lemuel in 1 Nephi 15:13-14. There Nephi speaks of “the remnant of our seed” rather than “the remnant of your seed.” And the task Nephi assigns to this remnant is that of coming to know that it is part of Israel and that it has a role to play in the fulfillment of Israel’s covenants. Here it is perhaps possible to recognize a kind of further distancing of the remnant in question from the initial assignment in chapter 13 of the Lehite remnant to the role of being the remnant of Israel. This point deserves closer investigation, but I will take it up in terms of the last reference to the remnant in First Nephi: 1 Nephi 19:24.

The Remnant in 1 Nephi 19:24

If in 1 Nephi 15 there is at least a hint of Nephi’s distancing the remnant of Lehi’s seed from the remnant of Israel, there is a hermeneutical confirmation of this distancing in 1 Nephi 19. It comes, importantly, in Nephi’s introduction to his first full quotation of Isaiah material (thought from Second Isaiah, not First Isaiah), to be found in 1 Nephi 20-21. In verse 23 of chapter 19, Nephi introduces his reasons for reading Isaiah; and then in verse 24, he introduces the Isaiah quotation in particular. These two verses, taken together, are quite significant.

23 And I did read many things unto them which were written in the books of Moses; but that I might more fully persuade them to believe in the Lord their Redeemer I did read unto them that which was written by the prophet Isaiah; for I did liken all scriptures unto us, that it might be for our profit and learning.
24 Wherefore I spake unto them, saying: Hear ye the words of the prophet, ye who are a remnant of the house of Israel, a branch who have been broken off; hear ye the words of the prophet, which were written unto all the house of Israel, and liken them unto yourselves, that ye may have hope as well as your brethren from whom ye have been broken off; for after this manner has the prophet written.

To begin with verse 24, it should be noticed that Nephi speaks here not of the remnant of the house of Israel, but instead of “a remnant of the house of Israel.” It seems from this quite clear that while Nephi understands the Isaiah texts to be dealing with the remnant of Israel, he wants to present the remnant that Lehi’s seed will become as taking up the role of that singular remnant only through a “likening” of Isaiah—hence the importance of verse 23. In other words, it seems that Nephi here confirms the distancing witnessed in 1 Nephi 15 by establishing only a likening relationship between the remnant to be constituted of Lehi’s descendants and the remnant discussed in the brass plates prophets.

What is behind this distancing? It should be noted that the original identification of the promised remnant of Israel as the remnant of Lehi’s seed is to be found only in the texts dealing with Nephi’s vision directly. And it should be noted that the work of distancing, eventually suggesting that it is only through a kind of likening of Old World scripture that the theme of the remnant can be applied to the Lehite remnant, always appears in Nephi’s discussions directly with Laman and Lemuel. Might there be a hint here as to what is at work in this distancing? It would seem that while Nephi himself recognized that there was an actual identification between the Isaianic remnant, he wasn’t entirely sure he wanted his brothers to know that—or he wasn’t entirely sure they could believe him on that point. For something like these reasons, it seems, Nephi presented the Lehite theme of the remnant only through a likening hermeneutic of Isaiah, rather than through a straightforward reading of Isaiah that would have been suggested by the straightforwardness of the vision of 1 Nephi 11-14. Interestingly, the record we’ve inherited allows us to see both understandings of the remnant: the Lehite remnant is the Israelite remnant; the Lehite remnant is an Israelite remnant.

A bit more on all this: it seems from this introductory word (in 1 Nephi 19:24) that Nephi, while obviously recognizing that the word “remnant” does not appear in any of the Second Isaiah quotations that appear in the Book of Mormon, seems to have understood the addressed community of Second Isaiah to be identifiable as the prophesied-of remnant constructed in First Isaiah. In other words, there may be important implications in just this one verse about how Nephi made sense of the whole book of Isaiah, implications that will have to be spelled out elsewhere. For now, let me turn to the last couple of Nephi’s reference to the remnant theme, to be found at the end of Second Nephi.

Non-Isaianic References to the Remnant in Second Nephi

Most of what appears in Second Nephi about the remnant appears in the Isaiah quotations, which I have already worked through in detail in my previous post. Only a couple other references can be found, and they are found only in the last chapters of Nephi’s contribution to the central testimony of his record: 2 Nephi 28:2; 30:3, 4.

The first of these paints the picture of the relationship between the remnant of Lehi’s seed and the emergent Book of Mormon:

2 And the things which shall be written out of the book shall be of great worth unto the children of men, and especially unto our seed, which is a remnant of the house of Israel.

In the end, though, this reference does little more than introduce two full chapters of discussion of the Gentile reception of the Book of Mormon. It is certainly of some significance also that Nephi speaks again only of a (and not of the) remnant of Israel. But to turn to the references in chapter 30, where Nephi returns to the emergence of the Book of Mormon, now to speak of those who actually will believe:

3 And now, I would prophesy somewhat more concerning the Jews and the Gentiles. For after the book of which I have spoken shall come forth, and be written unto the Gentiles, and sealed up again unto the Lord, there shall be many which shall believe the words which are written; and they shall carry them forth unto the remnant of our seed.
4 And then shall the remnant of our seed know concerning us, how that we came out from Jerusalem, and that they are descendants of the Jews.

Here again the talk is of “the remnant of our seed,” and Nephi deals specifically with how they will receive the Book of Mormon through the eventual faithfulness of the Gentiles. Again it would seem best to see these references as drawing on the strength of the Isaiah chapters that precede them (particularly in light of the fact that chapter 30 will go on to quote again from them). But it must be noticed that Nephi seems by this point to have come to the point of taking the basic remnant theology he had sketched as being a given in his work.

However “given” it was for him, though, it more or less disappeared from Nephite writings after Nephi wrote these chapters—something I will take up in my next post.

9 Responses to “The Remnant in the Book of Mormon: First and Second Nephi”

  1. Robert C. said

    More great stuff, Joe. Thoughts while reading:

    1. Interesting that in Isaiah 4, such strong temple imagery is used in connection with this remnant theme.

    2. In relation to thinking about temple covenants, and the Abrahamic covenant (and the relation between seed and remnant that I commented on before), it’s interesting to me how frequently covenant themes are mentioned in or near the passages you describe, esp. in 1 Nephi 13-14 and 2 Nephi 30:2….

    3. Covenants are a common theme in the Large Plates, but not in relation to the Abrahamic covenant, it seems. Were familial covenants, as we know them today, taught only in the temple in the books from Mosiah to Helaman? There seems to be a very important link between the simultaneous neglect of themes related to the remnant, intergenerational links and the Abrahamic covenant. The “most sacred” part of Nephi’s smaller “more sacred” plates is what makes me this potential relation to the secrecy of temples, Isaiah’s hardening themes, and the “veiled” likening hermeneutic of Nephi’s so interesting.

    Yes, much to think about….

  2. KirkC said

    Thanks for posting this series Joe. They are a great reference.

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  5. […] 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 by the Nephites for hundreds of years. […]

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  7. […] 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 theology in […]

  8. Clinton Jones said

    Thank you for the posts, Joe. Your writings are always very insightful. It’s very interesting to note the parallel between Nephi and Isaiah: by vision, both of these seers witnessed the destruction of their respective civilizations, found hope in the remnant that was to remain and took to writing to convey their prophetic message to this remnant and concomitant future generations, that we might know “to what source we may look for redemption”.

  9. […] 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 whole […]

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