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The Remnant in the Book of Mormon: 3 Nephi 20-21, Preliminaries

Posted 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 the Book of Mormon—mostly in order to sketch out some of the basics, but with increasing brevity as I’ve approached the end of the book. In my discussion of Third Nephi, I skipped over 3 Nephi 20-21 completely, primarily because these two chapters constitute the most privileged—and complex!—discussion of the remnant in the Book of Mormon, and I thought it best to dedicate a more sustained and careful analysis to that text in particular. So here we are: the last word I’ll be putting together for now on the remnant. What of 3 Nephi 20-21?


The visit of Christ to the gathered Nephites and Lamanites in Third Nephi is divided into two major sequences: 3 Nephi 11-18 (the “first day”) and 3 Nephi 19-26 (the “second day”). Latter-day Saints tend to be relatively acquainted with the first of these two sequences, but the second—likely because it deals with so much Old Testament scripture (texts from Micah, Isaiah, and Malachi)—receives much less attention. The first sequence thus contains a number of familiar texts:

(1) The appearance of Christ and the invitation to feel His wounds (3 Nephi 11:1-17)
(2) Christ’s initial sermon on baptism (3 Nephi 11:18-41)
(3) A New World version of the Sermon on the Mount (3 Nephi 12-14)
(4) An explanation concerning the fulfillment of the Law (3 Nephi 15:1-10)
(5) A clarification of the meaning of John 10:16 (3 Nephi 15:11-16:3)
(6) A brief word about the eschatological fulfillment of the covenant (3 Nephi 16:4-20)
(7) A healing sequence coupled with the blessing of the children (3 Nephi 17)
(8) The initial administration of the sacrament (3 Nephi 18)

The only snippet of this first sequence of Christ’s visit that doesn’t receive relatively frequent attention is the one I have labeled number 6: Christ’s brief word about the eschatological fulfillment of the covenant (in 3 Nephi 16:4-20). Interestingly, this passage is a clear anticipation of the entire second sequence: it is these words that Jesus says (at the beginning of 3 Nephi 17) the Nephites and Lamanites cannot understand, and it is these words to which Jesus returns in 3 Nephi 20 when he says that he to “finish the commandment” of the Father. Given that Latter-day Saints tend to feel quite as baffled as the Nephites and Lamanites at the content of 3 Nephi 16:4-20, and given especially that we tend to ignore the whole of the second sequence of Christ’s visit, there is good reason to take up sustained discussion of these texts.

Within the context of Third Nephi itself, it seems best to interpret the events of 3 Nephi 18:1-20:9 as doing the work of preparing the Nephites and Lamanites to make sense of the eschatological themes of 3 Nephi 16:4-20 and of the majority of the second sequence. That is, it seems that the administration of the sacrament (first in 3 Nephi 18 and then in 3 Nephi 20:1-9) is meant to open Christ’s hearers up spiritually so that they can make sense of the sermon that begins in 3 Nephi 20:10; and it seems that the curious triple prayer event of 3 Nephi 19 is similarly connected with preparing the people to understand. These are clues that might help further along in making sense of 3 Nephi 20-21.

The second sequence can be outlined as well, though it is a bit more difficult to do so, since most of it is made up of a single sustained sermon:

(1) A sequence of prayers (3 Nephi 19)
(2) Administration of the sacrament (3 Nephi 20:1-9)
(3) Micah 4-5 and Isaiah 52 (3 Nephi 20:10-21:29)
(4) Isaiah 54 (3 Nephi 22)
(5) Adjustment of the Nephite record (3 Nephi 23)
(6) Malachi 3-4 (3 Nephi 24-25)
(7) Concluding words (3 Nephi 26)

With that basic outline, it is possible here to begin to address 3 Nephi 20:10-21:29 a bit more directly. They might more themselves be outlined in more detail:

(1) Introduction: Isaiah, the remnant, the gathering, and the promised land (20:10-14)
(2) The Gentiles and Israel: Micah 5:7-9; 4:12-13 (20:15-21)
(3) The prophets and the Lehites: Moses, Abraham, and all the rest (20:22-28)
(4) The Jews and Isaiah: Isaiah 52:8-10 (20:28-35)
(5) More Isaiah: Isaiah 52:1-3, 7, 11-15 (20:36-46)
(6) The sign: the Book of Mormon comes forth (21:1-7)
(7) Isaiah and Micah redux: Isaiah 52:13-15 and Micah 5:8-15 (21:8-21)
(8) Repentant Gentiles: assisting Israel (21:22-24)
(9) The covenant: the work completed and Isaiah 52:12 (21:25-29)

What immediately calls for attention here is the saturating presence of Micah 4-5 and Isaiah 52. But this presence is so saturating that it would be best to take up these textual connections separately.

Isaiah and Abinadi

It is not terribly surprising to find Isaiah in the Book of Mormon, but it is somewhat surprising to find Isaiah here. Isaiah is, of course, a major concern for Nephi in his contribution to the small plates, but after Nephi’s lengthy and quite frequent quotations of Isaiah, the Old Testament prophet more or less disappears from the Book of Mormon. But in fact, there is much at work here: Isaiah disappears specifically through the complex intervention of a singular figure in the Book of Mormon, namely, Abinadi. In the course of his sermon before Noah and his priests, Abinadi reworks the meaning of Isaiah for the Nephites in a drastic way. Whereas for Nephi, Isaiah had been the great thinker of the covenant and its entanglement with written-and-sealed texts (obviously, a good deal of commentary is needed to sort out how Nephi reads Isaiah—for now, then, I’m just asking for trust on this point), Abinadi takes Isaiah to be prophesying directly of the life of the Messiah. This shift from the covenantal to the Christological Isaiah had massive implications for Nephite thought: whereas Isaiah had been quite central to Nephite thinking, Abinadi’s approach to the prophet allowed him to disappear, more or less, from their spiritual concerns.

Of course, the reason Abinadi was dealing with Isaiah at all was because the priests of Noah put an Isaianic text to him for interpretation. It is clear that they had a standard reading of the text—one not unlike the readings of Nephi—that they took to serve as a kind of justification for Noah’s (excessive) regime. Abinadi’s invention of an entirely new hermeneutical model for approaching Isaiah was in part an attempt to wrest the self-justificatory approach of Abinadi’s priests to Isaiah from them, and it seemed the only way that could be done was through a Christologicization of the text. And Abinadi paid for what his contemporaries unquestionably regarded as a heretical interpretive model: he was put to death.

Importantly, there were four verses put to Abinadi for interpretation: Isaiah 52:7-10. In his Christological reading of these verses, he tied the passage to Isaiah 53, which he—like Christians today, generally—read as an anticipatory prophecy of Christ’s suffering and atonement. Interestingly, he didn’t try to place Isaiah 52:7-10 within the larger context of Isaiah 52 (he cited none of the rest of the chapter), but only took it up in terms of its (implicit) connection to Isaiah 53. But the very fact that he dealt with chapters 52 and 53 of Isaiah deserves a close look, because of the way these two chapters play into a larger concern with Isaiah in the Book of Mormon generally.

The small plates, which had been definitively finished during Abinadi’s own day, contained eighteen more or less full chapters of Isaiah. The chunk of Isaiah chapters usually referred to with so many groans in the Church is to be found in 2 Nephi 12-24, where Nephi copies into his record Isaiah 2-14. Only a couple chapters later, he copies into—but greatly modifies and expands—Isaiah 29. These together make up the whole of what the Nephites include in their record from what scholars refer to as First Isaiah (Isaiah 1-39). Nephi also demonstrates consistent interest in what scholars call Second Isaiah (Isaiah 40-55), and he quotes (in 1 Nephi 20-21 and, through Jacob, in 2 Nephi 7-8) four chapters from it: Isaiah 48-49 and then Isaiah 50-51. Assuming that the sequentiality of Nephi’s two series of Isaiah quotations is not by mistake, it seems that the small plates are characterized by two Isaianic trajectories: on the one hand, there are the “Isaiah chapters” pure and simple (Isaiah 2-14 plus Isaiah 29); on the other hand, there are the chapters drawn from Second Isaiah (Isaiah 48-51). If the former trajectory is more or less complete in itself (something I would have to argue for at length, but I take to be the case), the latter trajectory is not, and it is then no surprise that one finds subsequent Nephites dealing with the remaining chapters from Second Isaiah. And, crucially, it is Abinadi who takes up the trajectory after the small plates come to a close.

In short, it seems to me no coincidence that it is precisely as the small plates are completed that Abinadi takes up Isaiah 52-53, extending the Second Isaiah trajectory of the Book of Mormon from Isaiah 48 to Isaiah 53—all these chapters being quoted in order, even though their placement in the text is distributed at intervals. Of course, even as Abinadi gives the Second Isaiah trajectory a second life, he also brings it to a definitive close, as I’ve already mentioned: Abinadi’s invention of a drastically new interpretive methodology with regard to Isaiah both allows Second Isaiah to find its way into the large plates history and stops that trajectory short, allowing the Nephites after Abinadi to ignore Isaiah completely. And it seems to me particularly important, then, that Abinadi’s stopping of the trajectory is in part worked out through a fragmented approach to Isaiah 52.

Now, why bother with all these details? Because it is not until Christ’s visit that Isaiah finds his way back into the Book of Mormon, and it should not be missed that the two chapters I’m dealing with here (3 Nephi 20-21) deal extensively with Isaiah 52, of all texts. The connections with Abinadi are more striking still. Christ reintroduces Isaiah all the way back in 3 Nephi 16, a chapter (and mini-sermon) he concludes simply by quoting Isaiah 52:8-10—that is, by quoting three of the four verses the priests put to Abinadi for interpretation. By taking up that passage in particular as His point of reference, Christ introduces His discussion of Isaiah as a kind of return to Abinadi’s concerns. But this return is quite complex: rather than coupling the passage only with Isaiah 53, Christ associates it with the rest of Isaiah 52, and then couples all that with Isaiah 54 (in 3 Nephi 22).

Most striking, however, is the fact that when Christ comes at these same verses from Isaiah 52, He reintroduces Nephi’s interpretive methodology, taking the Isaiah text not as Christological, but as covenantal through and through. There is thus here not only a return to Abinadi’s textual concerns, but also a return to Nephi’s textual hermeneutics, a kind of Nephi-tizing of Abinadi’s sermon. And, of course, one of the biggest clues to this whole business is Christ’s very Nephi-like focus on a term Abinadi never once mentions: the remnant.

All of this will have to be taken up in terms of the details of 3 Nephi 20-21 further along.


Scholars have long recognized that Isaiah and Micah are connected. The two were both prophesying in Judah at the same time, though Isaiah was from Jerusalem itself (in particular, from the upper class and perhaps even the priestly circles in Jerusalem), while Micah was from Moresheth, a very small farm town further south (though there is some indication that he may have been the town representative to Jerusalem, and so a relatively important character in his own city, and at least a frequent visitor to—if not terribly well known in—Jerusalem). Micah and Isaiah share a number of concerns: both worry a good deal about how the wealthy of Jerusalem were oppressing the poor; both concern themselves with a basic Zion theology; both wrote about (or perhaps one borrowed from the other on) the question of the mountain of the Lord’s house; both focused heavily on the Israelite-Gentile relationship; and, most important here, both had a great deal to say (far more than any other single prophet) about the theme of the remnant.

It seems, then, that it should be no surprise to find Isaiah 52 intertwined with Micah 4-5 in 3 Nephi 20-21. But, actually, it is something of a surprise. The reason for this deserves a bit closer attention.

The book of Isaiah, it is generally believed (among non-Mormon scholars), originated with three different major “authors,” allowing the book to be divided into First Isaiah (Isaiah 1-39), Second Isaiah (Isaiah 40-55), and Third Isaiah (Isaiah 56-66). The overwhelming consensus (though there are, of course, dissidents) believes First Isaiah to have been the prophetic figure from eighth-century Jerusalem, while Second Isaiah would have been prophesying during the Babylonian exile (in the mid-sixth century), and Third Isaiah would have been prophesying only after the return to Jerusalem (late sixth century or early fifth century). The idea, then, is that the book of Isaiah was compiled in stages, only taking its current shape long after Lehi’s family left Jerusalem for the New World.

Of course, Latter-day Saints have not been terribly keen on this approach to Isaiah, primarily because so much of Isaiah shows up in the Book of Mormon, including bits that are supposed not to have been written until after Lehi took the brass plates with him. Here, though, we ought to be careful. Not a word of Third Isaiah shows up in the Book of Mormon, so I don’t know that there is any particular reason Latter-day Saints ought not to take quite seriously the idea that Isaiah 56-66 were written during the post-exilic period. But of course, there is reason for Latter-day Saints committed to the historicity of the Book of Mormon—and I am committed to the historicity of the Book of Mormon—to be concerned about the claim that Second Isaiah was written only during the exile (that is, after Lehi’s family escaped from Jerusalem’s destruction). Of course, strictly speaking, it isn’t necessary that Isaiah himself wrote Second Isaiah during the eighth century for the Nephites to have had Second Isaiah and to have believed that it was written by Isaiah. It is only necessary that (1) Second Isaiah—or at least much of it—was written before about 600 B.C. and that (2) it was already being attributed to Isaiah of Jerusalem by that time. Only these two facts follow from what the Book of Mormon has to say about Isaiah.

Now, I would not be offended to find out that Second Isaiah was not written by Isaiah himself, but instead by another prophetic figure who was inspired to add to First Isaiah’s book (something like the History of the Church being written after Joseph’s death but in the first person voice, as if Joseph had himself written it). I also would be quite happy to discover definitive evidence that Second Isaiah was written by the same author as First Isaiah. Whichever of these turns out to be the case—and I’m not sure we’ll ever know the truth of the matter on this side of the veil—it shouldn’t do any damage to the Book of Mormon. We only need to trust that, yes, Second Isaiah was indeed written before the family of Lehi left Jerusalem.

Importantly, I think we ought to recognize that whoever actually wrote Second Isaiah wanted his writings to be taken as the writings of Isaiah, and so there is good reason for us, even as we take seriously the possibility that Second Isaiah was the work of a separate author, to remember that when we read it as it was written we ought to pay careful attention to how Second Isaiah is intertwined with and connected to First Isaiah. But then, why bother at all with the distinction between First Isaiah and Second Isaiah? Why not simply assume that it was all written by Isaiah of Jerusalem and simply get on with things? Quite simply because Second Isaiah—as scholars are now realizing—has a complex theological relationship with First Isaiah, and the Book of Mormon is doing something very interesting with that complex theological relationship. And, it so turns out, that complex theological relationship is inherently tied to the question of the remnant, and so to the position and importance of Micah in 3 Nephi 20-21.

Above I’ve already outlined something of the place of Isaiah in the small plates. It is important, I think, to note that Nephi seems to have set up two distinct trajectories in his record, a First Isaianic trajectory (Isaiah 2-14 with a midrash on Isaiah 29), and Second Isaianic trajectory (Isaiah 48-51, further supplemented by Abinadi and Christ, so that it becomes Isaiah 48-54). That bits and pieces of both First Isaiah and Second Isaiah are not, in the Book of Mormon, simply decontextualized and quoted in the construction of a larger theology of sorts, but instead taken whole cloth and assembled into two distinct patterns of Isaianic interpretation calls for serious readerly attention. In many ways, it will not be until we have made some sense of the place of Isaiah in the Book of Mormon that we will be able to make any real sense of the Book of Mormon itself. (This is something I outline in my hopefully forthcoming book, An Other Testament: On Typology.)

A brief sketch of what I see happening with Isaiah in the Book of Mormon should pave the way to an engagement, at last, of what is going on with Isaiah and Micah in 3 Nephi 20-21.

The construction of Isaiah 2-55, the combined volumes of First and Second Isaiah, as it appears in the Old Testament, suggests that Second Isaiah is meant to answer First Isaiah. (Allow me to recommend two books in particular on this subject: Edgar Conrad’s Reading Isaiah and Christopher Seitz’s Reading and Preaching the Book of Isaiah.) The idea, here, is that First Isaiah is constructed around a series of passages emphasizing Isaiah’s being forced to turn from his contemporaries to look out onto the future (see, in particular, Isaiah 6-12 and Isaiah 28-33). Through the events that led Isaiah to look to the future, he also found himself turned from an emphasis on the oral—on the prophetic task of speaking—to the written, as if First Isaiah were a guide to the decision that inaugurated the tradition of the writing prophets. (The best discussion of this way of reading First Isaiah is found in Von Rad’s Old Testament Theology, vol. 2.) First Isaiah thus finds Isaiah constructing a written record that is intended specifically to be sealed up for a later generation—a theme that Nephi will adopt and then go on to make central to Nephite understandings of scripture.

Second Isaiah, then, serves as the (Isaianic) response to this turn-to-the-written/future. As many scholars have noted (see, in particular, the work of Frank Moore Cross on this point), Isaiah 40 is a systematic repetition of Isaiah 6, the call of Isaiah to the ministry. The second call narrative—the call, so to speak, of the second Isaiah, even if that second Isaiah is just a reoriented first Isaiah—has the Lord calling the prophet to “Cry!” But, as Edgar Conrad points out, the word translated “Cry!” in the passage might more literally be translated “Read!” Though it might be ultimately a bit playful to read it this way, such an approach allows for an interpretation of Second Isaiah as a work of prophetic reading, as a readerly response to First Isaiah. I think, though, that this approach makes the most sense of the Book of Mormon’s employment of Isaiah.

What we have, according to this reading, is a Book of Isaiah that splits itself into two interrelated parts: First Isaiah begins as if it were focused on its own time and place, but because of the Lord’s way of dealing with Isaiah’s prophetic task, there is a violent shift in focus to the future, a future to be oriented by the emergence of a book; Second Isaiah then begins with the prophetic task of reading that book, to which it goes on to respond by laying out the consequences of the reading of that book, a series of consequences that amount to the redemption of Israel and its return to its lands of promise.

This split Isaiah is precisely, I think, what is taken over by the Book of Mormon. Nephi adopts the First Isaiah focus on the writing and sealing up of texts, taking First Isaiah as parallel to himself (and to Jacob, his brother): 2 Nephi 6-30 presents Nephi, Isaiah, and Jacob as three parallel prophets, all writing and sealing up their testimony for a later time. And then Nephi uses Second Isaiah in order to project what will happen in the last days, in the eschatological gathering and return of Israel: Isaiah 48-51 is used in First and Second Nephi in order to project the events of the last days that Nephi had seen in vision.

The trajectory of Second Isaiah in the Book of Mormon, though, becomes quite complex after Nephi’s contribution. Abinadi diverts it, reapplying Second Isaiah to the time of Jesus, rather than to the time of the eschatological events surrounding Israel. But then Christ, in Third Nephi, turns Second Isaiah back to Israel, taking up Nephi’s approach again. With that, it becomes clear that Second Isaiah continues through the Book of Mormon as the text that makes sense of where Israel will end up, and of what all that has to do with the sealing up of a text to come forth at the appropriate time.

But what has all this to do with Micah?

Micah and Isaiah

As I pointed out above, there is something odd about the way that Micah is combined not with First Isaiah but with Second Isaiah in Third Nephi. Given all that I’ve outlined about Isaiah in the Book of Mormon above, there is reason to suspect that Micah, if employed at all in the Book of Mormon, would be associated only with First Isaiah. Scholars have, as I mentioned, recognized important connections between Micah and First Isaiah, but no such connections seem to obtain between Micah and Second Isaiah. Not only do scholars tend to believe that Micah and Second Isaiah were people from drastically different periods and circumstances, but there are not the same thematic connections between them that exist between Micah and First Isaiah.

However, the analysis of Isaiah above suggests that the relationship between First Isaiah and Second Isaiah is a bit more complex than might be assumed on a first reading of the literature about Isaiah. Yes, we do seem to be dealing with two distinct prophets (or at least two distinct periods of Isaiah’s prophetic career), but they cannot be disentangled given that the one anticipates the other, and the other responds to the one. Given that, there is something very interesting about Micah’s being associated with Isaiah at all in the Book of Mormon, even if this is only with Second Isaiah. This deserves some attention.

Micah, like First Isaiah, seems to be looking out onto a very specific series of future events, all gathered around the central theme of the remnant. Though Second Isaiah seems basically to be unconcerned with the question of the remnant, its complex relationship with First Isaiah suggests that Second Isaiah is actually about nothing but the remnant—that is, Second Isaiah presents itself, in its canonical entanglement with First Isaiah, as the actual response to First Isaiah of the remnant itself. As such, it doesn’t seem terribly surprising that Micah is woven together with Second Isaiah in Third Nephi.

But in order to do serious work on this entanglement, it is necessary to take up a series of questions about Micah in some detail. Answers to these questions should allow for a much more careful reading of 3 Nephi 20-21. But enough work needs to be done on this question, that I will dedicate an entire post to Micah.

8 Responses to “The Remnant in the Book of Mormon: 3 Nephi 20-21, Preliminaries”

  1. Robert C. said

    Joe, it is truly exhilarating to see the fruits of your work the last few years (that I’ve seen—longer, presumably…) blossom so beautifully!

    When I get some time, I’d like to think more about the possibility that this double theme of the remnant fulfills/echoes the double covenant given to Abraham in Gen 15 and 17….

  2. Roberta G said

    Hi Joe!

    I was so captivated reading your work that I actually got a little bit irritated that it ended.

    I’m waiting for what you have to say about Micah’s involvement…

  3. Roberta G said

    ……of course, “irritated” in the most friendly way. I didn’t want to stop reading… rg

  4. […] The Remnant in the Book of Mormon: 3 Nephi 20-21, Preliminaries […]

  5. […] The Remnant in the Book of Mormon: 3 Nephi 20-21, Preliminaries […]

  6. […] a previous post dealing with preliminary questions regarding 3 Nephi 20-21, I worked through a number of general […]

  7. […] by joespencer on April 22, 2010 In three previous posts, I have worked through some preliminaries regarding 3 Nephi 20-21, a number of analyses of the role of Micah in the text, and a number of […]

  8. […] 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 book, is introduced […]

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