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.