Nephi’s Desert Island Book: Isaiah 2-14 in a New World Context #BOM2016

2 Nephi 12-24

The mature Nephi is something of a tragic figure, cut off from his culture, despairing of his descendants, and alienated from his own society. . . . Imagine, for a moment, his situation. He was educated in Jerusalem and literate at a time when such training was rare. He seems to have been fascinated by books and records. And then in his teenage years he was suddenly taken from the culturally rich and intellectually stimulating of Judah’s capital to live in a distant land, in the company of only his relatives, with a single text (the Brass Plates) to read for the rest of his life. (Grant Hardy, Understanding the Book of Mormon, 59-60)

Our university library sponsors a monthly “Desert Island Book” lecture. The premise is pretty simple: chose the one book you would want to take with you if you were stranded on a desert island for the rest of your life. I gave the lecture about a year ago and chose Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray. (Here’s the PowerPoint if you really want to know why). I thought a lot about that lecture when I was reading the long stretch of Isaiah in 2 Nephi 12-24, since the Brass Plates of Laban are basically Nephi’s Desert Island Book—the only reading material he has had for more than 40 years. 

Nephi’s largest block of Isaiah, then, represents a distillation of his years of study with the only book available. Afraid (and with good reason) that none of his descendants would expend the effort to understand everything on the Brass Plates, he excerpts what he considers to be its most important section—a section that treats the two most important concepts of his own prophecies: 1) the possibility of Zion; and 2) the certainty of the Messiah.

Zion and the Redemption of Israel
Isaiah (and we are clearly dealing with Proto-Isaiah here, so there are no continuity issues this time) wrote during the 8th century BCE when Assyria was a serious threat to both the Northern and the Southern kingdoms. Israel actually was destroyed by Assyria in 722, and Sennacherib laid siege to, and came very close to destroying Jerusalem in 701. So Isaiah’s prophecies of death and destruction were not exactly far-fetched for his audience.

But Isaiah was unique among the death-and-destruction crowd because he always combined his descriptions of Israel destroyed with the vision of Israel redeemed. And he had a special name for Jerusalem once it had been destroyed and then redeemed. He called it “Zion.”

The first section that Nephi quotes, Chapters 2-4 of Isaiah, constitute a single unit in the original text—one that perfectly demonstrates the way that Isaiah combines prophecies of destruction with prophecies of redemption. In these chapters, he sandwiches a whole lot of strong criticism in between two beautiful and compelling visions of a redeemed Israel. He begins by describing how Zion will look in the Last Days:

And it shall come to pass in the last  days, when the mountain of the Lord’s house shall be established in the top of the mountains, and shall be exalted above  the hills, and all nations shall flow unto it, and many people  shall go and say, Come ye, and let us go up to the mountain  of the Lord, to the house of the God of Jacob; and he will  teach us of his ways, and we will walk in his paths: for out  of Zion shall go forth the law, and the word of the Lord from Jerusalem. (2 Ne. 12:1-3)

From here, Isaiah launches into a detailed description of all of the un-Zion-like things that the people of Jerusalem are up to. They worship idols, they allow people to go hungry in the shadow of great wealth, they refuse to bow down to the Lord—all of the standard stuff. And they will pay a great price for their disobedience. Most of 2 Ne. 12-13 is dedicated to explaining all of the ways that the people of Jerusalem will suffer when they are destroyed.

And then in Chapter 14 (Isaiah 4), he returns to the last days again and prophecies of the redemption that will come after the destruction:

And it shall come to pass, them that are left in Zion, and remaineth in Jerusalem, shall be called holy, every one that is written among the living in Jerusalem: 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. 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. And there shall be a tabernacle for a shadow in the day time from the heat, and for a place of refuge, and a covert from storm and from rain. (2 Ne. 14: 3-6)

Prophecies of the Messiah
Along with these compelling visions of Zion, the portion of Isaiah quoted in 2 Nephi also contains the most fully developed picture of the Messiah to be found anywhere in the Old Testament, beginning with the prophecy that a virgin would conceive a son who would be a sign from God:

Hear ye now, O house of David; Is it a small thing for you to weary men, but will ye weary my God also? Therefore the Lord himself shall give you a sign: Behold, a virgin shall conceive, and shall bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel. Butter and honey shall he eat, that he may know to refuse the evil, and to choose the good. (2 Ne. 17: 13-15)

The special role of this child echoes throughout the rest of the Isaiah section. In 2 Ne. 18, we see him as the king of Judah (note the pun at the end):

The Lord spake also unto me again, saying, Forasmuch as  this people refuseth the waters of Shiloah that go softly, and  rejoice in Rezin and Remaliah’s son; now therefore, behold,  the Lord bringeth up upon them the waters of the river, strong  and many, even the king of Assyria, and all his glory: and he shall come up over all his channels, and go over all his banks:  and he shall pass through Judah; he shall overflow and go  over, he shall reach even to the neck; and the stretching out of his wings shall fill the breadth of thy land, O Immanuel. Associate yourselves, O ye people, and ye shall be broken in pieces; and give ear all ye of far countries: gird yourselves, and ye shall be broken in pieces; gird yourselves, and ye shall be broken in pieces. Take counsel together and it shall come to nought; speak the word, and it shall not stand: for God is with us. (2 Ne. 18: 8-10)

And then there is this prophecy, still invoking the marvelous child, that I dare anyone familiar with Handel’s Messiah to read without singing along:

For unto us a child is born, unto us a son is given:  and the government shall be upon his shoulder: and his name shall be called Wonderful, Counsellor, The mighty God, The everlasting Father, The Prince of Peace. Of the increase of  government and peace there is no end, upon the throne of  David, and upon his kingdom, to order it, and to establish it  with judgment and with justice from henceforth even forever.  The zeal of the Lord of hosts will perform this. (2 Ne. 19:6-7)

You get the picture. Nephi pulls out nearly all of the potent references to a coming Messiah—a child who will be born as a sign from God, who will bring about the redemption of Israel. Towards the end of the section, Isaiah ties his two great themes together into the ringing declaration that it will be the Messiah who redeems Israel and ushers in Zion: “Sing unto the Lord; for he hath done excellent things: this is known in all the earth. Cry out and shout, thou inhabitant of Zion; for great is the Holy One of Israel in the midst of thee. (2 Ne. 22:5-6)

To understand why Nephi chose these chapters, out of all the writings that we presume to have been on the Brass Plates, we should keep in mind that Nephi knows that the very Jewish art of pouring over ancient texts and isolating their meaning is about to be lost among his people.  He acknowledges that “the Jews understand the things of the prophets” (2 Ne. 25:5), and he admits—somewhat sadly, I think—that “I . . . have not taught my children after the manner of the Jews” (2 Ne. 25:6).

As Grant Hardy explains, then, Nephi “sees himself as a participant in a distinctive, Jewish mode of exegesis, though he is the last one among his people” (Understanding the BOM, 61) He knows his people will only understand Isaiah if he gives them the most crucial excerpts (as he does in 2 Ne. 12-24) and then explains, in the clearest language possible, what Isaiah was saying—adding his own prophetic vision into the mix (as he does in the remainder of 2 Ne).

For latter-day readers, Nephi’s excerpting of, and commentary on Isaiah does two important things: 1) it ties the Book of Mormon together with the Old Testament and shows how both, if read under inspiration, function as testimonies of Christ; and 2) it points us to the possibility of Zion—Isaiah’s holy city that the Mortal Messiah would call “the Kingdom of God.” Both of these things–bearing witness of Christ and working to build Zion on earth–were fundamental to the Restoration, and remain fundamental to Latter-day Saint spirituality today.

Comments

  1. I love Hardy’s book. Seeing why the main authors of the BoM wrote in distinct ways is fascinating. You really can’t be mad at Nephi for expounding so much on the only reading material around. I also love this post. Instead of a desert island book, can I bring a desert island blog? BCC is da bomb dot com.

  2. Clark Goble says:

    It’s interesting to ask whether Nephi has a dual view of Isaiah. While he clearly loves the text and has a very interesting method of hermeneutics, at the same time there’s a certain critique of Isaiah in terms of plainness.

  3. I’ve never understood the point of all those long quotations from Isaiah in 2 Nephi. Your explanation makes a lot of sense to me. Thanks.

  4. Clark–

    Isaiah’s totally plain if you have the spirit of prophecy :)
    2 Nephi 25:4 “because the words of Isaiah are not plain unto you, nevertheless they are plain unto all those that are filled with the spirit of prophecy.”

    On the dual view of Isaiah–it’d be kinda dumb to include scripture calling other people (ancient Jews) to repentance. It has to be about us, right?

  5. Also, maybe a rationale for Nephi including Isaiah was that God stopped Nephi from writing all of his vision:

    1 Nephi 14:28 “And behold, I, Nephi, am forbidden that I should write the remainder of the things which I saw and heard; wherefore the things which I have written sufficeth me; and I have written but a small part of the things which I saw.”

    So not being able to write his vision, he used Isaiah’s words to write his vision.

  6. Clark Goble says:

    That’s an interesting idea I’d not thought of. The interesting thing to me is that Nephi’s hermeneutics leads to Isaiah applying on multiple planes including historic Israel, the personal level of sin, and then the future apocalyptic plane. (And probably others I’m missing)

    To your point about the dual view. I think it makes perfect sense calling ancient Jews to repentance if Nephi meant the people back in Jerusalem from when he left.

  7. I’m a couple days late on this, but in the OP Michael says that Isaiah 2-4 were a single unit in the original text. Just wondering where I can look this up for myself–I’d love to have a resource like this to see how it looks like Isaiah was broken up before chapter divisions. Thanks!

  8. Abu, I am drawing on my favorite Isaiah commentary, which is Brevard Childs’ volume in the Westminster John Knox Old Testament Library series. I like Childs’ approach better than pretty much any other commentator; he acknowledges the textual difficulties and likely composition issues, but, at the same time, believes that the final form that a biblical text takes is important to understand as a unified whole, whatever its original composition:

    http://www.amazon.com/Isaiah-Commentary-Old-Testament-Library-ebook/dp/B00NO4ZQIK/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1455846352&sr=1-1&keywords=brevard+childs+isaiah

  9. Thanks for the info!