The First Isaiah Chapters: The Book of Mormon as Biblical Commentary #BOM2016

1 Nephi 20-22 

The dreaded “Isaiah Chapters” of First and Second Nephi loom large in my childhood memories of the Book of Mormon. My teachers told me to just skip over them and get to the good stuff, and the general consensus of adults in the Church seemed to be then (and still seems to be now) something like, “we all know that this is the boring part of the Book of Mormon that nobody understands, but great are the words of Isaiah and all, so let’s pretend that it means something significant and try to sound really serious whenever we talk about it.”

The thing is, though, that it really does mean something significant—or at least something as bold, audacious and spiritually thrilling as any act of biblical interpretation ever has been.

With the introduction of these Isaiah chapters, the Book of Mormon becomes a much different kind of book than we have previously experienced. We have already seen that it is a family narrative, a theological treatise, and a book of prophecy with oracular dreams and sweeping visions of the future. And it is a pretty good adventure story with a hero who kills a rogue and kidnaps his servant,  breaks his bow hunting wild game, and builds a great seafaring vessel despite not actually knowing anything about boats. By the end of First Nephi, the Book of Mormon has also become a work of biblical commentary that presents difficult chapters in toto and follows them with a detailed critical analysis.

Even if he had been trying to confuse people for sport, Joseph Smith could not have selected a more difficult pair of Isaianic chapters to start with than Isaiah 48 and 49. Along with fitting uncomfortably with what scholars now refer to as Deutero-Isaiah (Isaiah 40-55), they also fit uncomfortably with each other. The first chapter, Chapter 48, is a harsh denunciation of Israel and a moral justification for the Babylonian captivity. In the course of rebuking Israel for is sins, Yahweh waxes poetic about what might have been if only the people of Israel hadn’t been such faithless louts. This is Isaiah at his most Ezekielesque. He seems to be rejecting Israel in the name of the Lord and saying, in effect, “We’re through. Don’t call. I hope you like hanging gardens”:

(17) Thus saith the Lord, thy Redeemer, the Holy One of Israel; I am the Lord thy God which teacheth thee to profit, which leadeth thee by the way that thou shouldest go. (18) O that thou hadst hearkened to my commandments! then had thy peace been as a river, and thy righteousness as the waves of the sea: (19) Thy seed also had been as the sand, and the offspring of thy bowels like the gravel thereof; his name should not have been cut off nor destroyed from before me.

In the frame narrative, these words are being read to a group of people who barely escaped the punishments it describes. The tribe of Lehites in the first chapters of the Book of Mormon is the remnant that will one day redeem Israel. This becomes extremely important in the next chapter which is precisely about the redemption of Israel by a saving remnant. This is where Isaiah waxes poetic on the renewed and glorious land that Israel will one day inhabit–a land that he called simply “Zion”:

(8) Thus saith the Lord, In an acceptable time have I heard thee, and in a day of salvation have I helped thee: and I will preserve thee, and give thee for a covenant of the people, to establish the earth, to cause to inherit the desolate heritages; (9) That thou mayest say to the prisoners, Go forth; to them that are in darkness, Shew yourselves. They shall feed in the ways, and their pastures shall be in all high places. (10) They shall not hunger nor thirst; neither shall the heat nor sun smite them: for he that hath mercy on them shall lead them, even by the springs of water shall he guide them. (11) And I will make all my mountains a way, and my highways shall be exalted. (12) Behold, these shall come from far: and, lo, these from the north and from the west; and these from the land of Sinim. (13) Sing, O heavens; and be joyful, O earth; and break forth into singing, O mountains: for the Lord hath comforted his people, and will have mercy upon his afflicted.

This passage has long been read as a Messianic prophecy and as a bookend to the previous chapter. In Chapter 48, God rebukes Israel; and Chapter 49, he promises to one day re-establish the covenant and create a new Promised Land. The Book of Mormon’s interpretation of the two passages advances the radical thesis that Isaiah did not (as pretty much everyone else thought) consider the Old World Jews to be the subjects of the prophecy. Rather, Zion was to be built in another place altogether and by a remnant that nobody knew about until the Book of Mormon came along:

And it meaneth that the time cometh that after all the House of Israel have been scattered and confounded, that the  Lord God will raise up a mighty nation among the Gentiles, yea, even upon the face of this land; and by them shall our seed be  scattered. And after that our seed is scattered, the Lord God will  proceed to do a marvellous work among the Gentiles, which shall  be of great worth unto our seed; wherefore, it is likened unto the being nourished by the Gentiles, and being carried in their  arms, and upon their shoulders. And it shall also be of worth  unto the Gentiles; and not only unto the Gentiles, but unto  all the House of Israel, unto the making known of the covenants of the Father of Heaven unto Abraham, saying, In thy  seed shall all the kindreds of the earth be blessed. (p. 57/1 Ne 22:7-9)

Let us be very clear about the radical and shocking nature of this interpretation. It’s huge. Earlier in First Nephi, the Book of Mormon associates America typologically with Israel and even suggests that the rise of the American continent was known to ancient prophets. In this passage, the BOM kicks it up to 11 and argues that one of the most potent symbols in the Old Testament—Isaiah’s prophecies of Zion, the subject of countless poems and sermons and, like, half of the songs in The Messiah—refers exclusively to America and to the American prophet who would re-establish the covenant between God and an American remnant of the Israelite nation.

The impact on the first generation of readers, I believe, would have been immense: it would have shown them a story that they had known all of their lives without even realizing that they were its heroes.

Comments

  1. Michael Nemelka says:

    Awesome.

  2. I think this is a wonderful commentary on these chapters. My only criticism is that I am not sure that Nephi would have interpreted Isaiah’s prophecies as applying or referring “exclusively to america.” He certainly interpreted these prophecies as applying to him and to his people, but I suspect that he saw the prophecy as having multiple instances where it would be fulfilled.

  3. symphonyofdissent,

    I agree generally with what you are saying. The prophecies of the gathering can refer to multiple sites. What I am talking about here is the actual, physical place that Isaiah calls “Zion.” I am pretty sure that, for Isaiah, Zion is an actual physical location that you can point to on a map, and not just a metaphor for a godly community. And Nephi pretty much comes right out and says (by way of interpreting Chapter 49) that the actual latter-day place that Isaiah called Zion is in America. Because places can only be in one place, I used the term “exclusive” to try to convey just how radical the BOM is to place this location in the New World instead of the Old. In later years, Joseph Smith would do exactly the same thing with the Garden of Eden.

  4. I am still not sure that the building of Zion in the Americas was seen as excluding the rebuilding of Zion in the old Jerusalem. Why can’t the title of Zion apply to multiple places at the same time?

  5. christiankimball says:

    Excellent and proves the value of this approach to the BoM. (I give myself a pat on the back for having had faint glimmers of similar thoughts all on my own. Of course that enhances my appreciation.)
    “First readers” is sufficiently ambiguous to raise a question. As framed the Isaiah chapters are part of a “chosen people” narrative to Lehi’s descendants, an important part of nation building one might argue. Do they also play to American exceptionalism? Does the timing work? For “first readers” in the 19th century? Is that in fact what you mean by “first reader” here? Or am I mixing periods?

  6. iirc, Bruce R. McConkie was a fan of treating poetic couplets where Zion and Jerusalem were paired (eg, “Awake, awake, put on thy strength, O Zion; put on thy beautiful garments, O Jerusalem, the holy city”) as secretly referring to two different locations. Kind of like how Matthew interpreted “riding upon an ass, and upon a colt the foal of an ass” as meaning two separate animals.

  7. christiankimball

    I definitely think that a version of American exceptionalism is at play here, but it is an earlier version than the one we are used to. This is not the exceptionalism of a confirmed superpower, but of a young revolutionary state convinced that it is the harbinger of the “Novus ordo seclorum,” or the new order of the ages. What I see in these chapters (and the whole BOM, really) is a sacralization of the essentially secular vision of the Founding Era: the American Revolution established a new kind of society that is destined to spread across the world through imitation, and across the American continent by exploration and conquest.

  8. Kevin Barney says:

    A very helpful reading; thanks for sharing.

  9. That all makes sense to me — exceptionalism but an earlier version, and sacralization of a new kind of society.

  10. Clark Goble says:

    It’s important to recognize that if there’s a certain vein of American exceptionalism in the translation it’s a far more nuanced one than typical Monroe Doctrine or western expansionism. Rather it’s tied much more with righteousness and contains strongly within it the prediction of a dystopian American dream.

  11. Michael, please consider me the slow obnoxious kid sitting in the back of the class who moved in halfway thru the school year while everyone else has been in the same class together since kindergarten. Which means I’ve got a lot of catching up to do.

    When I read the Book of Mormon – (again, which edition are reading? 1830 seems so much more fun, you know, without all those chapter and verse breaks that serve as speed bumps in an attempt to turn a novel format into something more palatable and respectable, like the King James Version of the Bible) – I translate it as: Madoc, blah, blah, blah, imagery, symbolism, more imagery, people (s), boat (s), utopia, decline, The End. But the boats, people, migration, Utopia founding is an old, old story. I don’t view it as American Exceptionalism since at the time those Utopian documents were written, Europeans weren’t aware of a Vespuccian named “island”. At best, it was labeled “India” on their best drawn maps (which, to be fair, had a lot of dragons on them and for good reason).

    So tell me again how Joseph Smith’s Zion is different than Francis Bacon’s New Atlantis? And how, pray tell, does New Atlantis inspire Johannes Kelpius to settle in Pennsylvania which is “coincidentally” within what I call “seer stone rock throwing distance” from Prophet Joseph?

  12. “Even if he (Prophet Joseph) had been trying to confuse people for sport……”

    Anyone ever had a teacher do that to you while you were a student? There’s a technical term for such form of pedagogy, which in polite company is referred to as “Being a Richard”. Now, if your intent as an author is to teach, and your intent as a missionary is to teach the teachings of a teacher who – unbeknownst to you is an elitist revealing in their supposed knowledge of “secret” truths, well – it’s not quite clear who the joker might be and who’s being laughed at during any one particular time. So, obtuseness aside, anyway to translate Prophet Joseph, Book of Mormon, and Isaiah into something us simpletons can understand? Kinda like “The Complete Idiots’ Guide to Understanding The Inside Intent, Stories, and quite possibly Jokes of the Book of Mormon” ? Thanks.

  13. “how Joseph Smith’s Zion is different than Francis Bacon’s New Atlantis?”
    I take it that Michael Austin’s point (. . . no, stop, put this in first person . . .)
    My question about American exceptionalism is not about the Book of Mormon as a best or only or first work in favor of American exceptionalism (however defined, and granted that some such argument might be available for all I know). Rather, it is whether “first readers” in the first half of the 19th century would read or understood it in that way. It does seem to me that, whether intended or not, the Book of Mormon does in fact speak to Americans’ desire for importance, destiny, significance, a place in history.

  14. Clark Goble says:

    Jeff, given that most western European utopias owe their heritage to the Bible and there were many utopian or Zionistic schemes through the centuries prior to Joseph Smith, one wonders what the point is? I don’t think anyone familiar with history would say Joseph Smith was particularly unique in all this.

    I do agree that reading too much of this through the lens of American exceptionalism can be problematic for various reasons. (Not the least of which the dystopian aspects of the Book of Mormon I mentioned)

    I should note that to me the more interesting parallel is always William Blake and his paralleling London as a kind of New Jerusalem. Orson Scott Card famously plays with this in his alternative-history retelling of the Joseph Smith story. There Blake becomes a Gandalf like character in the early novels. Arguably the good novels – the story starts falling apart in the 3rd volume and decreases significantly in quality in the later ones. Still good and worth reading mind you. But the first two volumes are fantastic.

    Christian, I think the question of American Exceptionalism isn’t just in terms of reader response (and then not only in the 19th century but on up through much of the 20th century). Rather I suspect the underlying original texts are themselves somewhat transformed by that culture of Joseph Smith thus affecting the very rhetoric of the translation. Again even in that context I think we need to be careful as the text is far more complex than a simple reading through a lens of utopia literature or American Exceptionalism would suggest.

  15. Clark Goble says:

    Michael (10:12) I’d suggest that perhaps both Isaiah and Nephi are a tad more complex than you suggest. While Isaiah definitely has a place-idea for Zion I also think he intends his texts to be a bit more broad. Further the book of Isaiah is itself likely a composite text.

    You mentioned deuteron-isaiah but most scholars see authorship as far more complex than just that. As I mentioned over on the T&S posts on 1 Nephi, the only possible way to read the deutero-isaiah passages is either as a modern expansion (by God, Moroni, or whatever) or to assume that there was some proto 2 Isaiah with the text in a different form that was transformed and probably added to in the post-exilic period. If so then interpreting the text becomes tricky since there are so many authors involves (the original author, the author of the form in the brass plates, the author(s) of the texts that became the KJV, any expansion authors, the translation authors, etc.) Add in that for Nephi at least interpretation intrinsically has numerous levels (and he appears to attribute this interpretive strategy to the Jews in pre-exilic Jerusalem) and the text gets complex fast.

    The problem with asserting just a single place is that this then ignores the place of say type settings in narratives. I think this is more than merely a literary tradition (although it is certainly that) but also manifests a real view of repeating structures in history with key archetypes. So for example to take an example outside of Isaiah, Nephi doesn’t just fit his narrative into the exodus pattern as a literary trope. He really sees himself repeating a pattern of Moses and in some ways sees either himself or his father as Moses.

    If these type patterns are archetypes revealing patterns then to say Zion is merely Jerusalem at a particular time/place fundamentally misses the style of texts. (Of course we can debate whether the original Isaiah believed in the archetype interpretation of type settings)

  16. “…….one wonders what the point is?”

    I guess that’s my point, if ever I were confident enough to articulate one. Just what, exactly, IS the point of the Book of Mormon?

  17. Clark Goble says:

    Jeff (4:43) It says pretty clearly in the text itself.

    BTW – in my previous comment rereading it that came off as patronizing. That’s completely the opposite of what I intended. I know Michael knows all that. It’s sort of the rhetorical perils of writing in response to a person but trying to explain enough for other readers. Came off horrible that time. Apologies.

  18. No offense taken at all, Clark. I’m always glad when people are paying enough attention to want to comment at all.

  19. Clark Goble says:

    Just to go along with my dystopian comments about the Book of Mormon is what I noted in the Bechtel Test thread. Nephite culture is never held up for praise except during the relatively short period after Jesus appears. Yet interestingly that period of utopia is not described except in two very short verses in 4 Nephi 1:2-3. We’re told they didn’t have contention, were just and had all things in common. Which is about as vague a description one could ever imagine.

    There is a tradition that in addition to the visions of the Brother of Jared that the sealed portion of the Book of Mormon also contains a discussion of this utopia. It’s just plain interesting that somewhere between half to two thirds of the Book of Mormon isn’t even translated. Further that it won’t be revealed until “until the day that they shall repent of their iniquity, and become clean before the Lord.” Which more or less can be taken to mean we don’t get a discussion of utopia until you already have utopia.

    If one takes American Exceptionalism seriously then I think the Book of Mormon even the passages that seem to explicitly be taken to discuss it undermine it. That is the land is exceptional but the people on it keep screwing up so they are wiped out. Thus American Exceptionalism is more exceptional the way Noah’s flood was exceptional. Further it exists with prophecy that it’ll be wiped out too precisely because it is anti-utopian. 1 Ne 14 is particularly interesting here in that it keeps inverting structures repeatedly through the chapter. Throw in Christ’s statements in 3 Nephi and it’s really hard to see American Exceptionalism as a kind of triumphalism. Interestingly in a way that might parallel how Israel is saved from one set of destructions just to be destroyed again a different way, saved, and then destroyed again. (Egypt, Persia, Babylon, Greece, Rome, etc.)

    The utopian schemes of Europe are much more tied to millennialism (which is of course a big part of Mormonism too). The idea of a final culmination. It’s interesting tracing the lines of this which develop in various different ways. Of course acetic ideals go back to paganism and especially Hellenistic philosophy. One might well argue that Augustine’s City of God owes as much to Athens as Jerusalem for instance. How Nephi sees all this does seem quite different than what developed in Europe over the centuries, even if there are strong parallels.

  20. Clark, as I read it, the American Exceptionalism in the Book of Mormon comes more in its prophecies for the future than in its depiction of either the Nephites or the Lamanites. And it also comes in its linkage of American soil to so many biblical prophecies. The argument that I read into it is something like, “America holds a singlularly important place in the whole, big-ole biblical narrative that starts in Genesis and goes through Revelation.” This was an extremely bold assertion in the biblically saturated culture of the 18th century. And, as I suggested somewhere upstream, it created a sacred component of what had basically been the secular argument of the Founding Fathers about the importance of America in the history of the future.