Isaiah in 2 Nephi FHE Project


This Sunday’s GD lesson is going to be on the Psalms, and our teacher asked me to do a short explanation of parallelism in Hebrew poetry as an enrichment activity. I plan to do a very brief summary of some of the things I wrote in my article “Understanding Old Testament Poetry” from the June 1990 Ensign.

In the article, I used the Song of Lamech as an illustration:

Adah and Zillah, Hear my voice;

ye wives of Lamech, hearken unto my speech:

for I have slain a man to my wounding,

and a young man to my hurt.

If Cain shall be avenged sevenfold,

truly Lamech seventy and sevenfold. [Gen. 4:23–24]

If you try to read the poetry as if it were prose, you will almost certainly misunderstand it. It looks like it mentions Lamech’s wives Adah and Zillah, and then his other wives as well, and it also looks like he killed two people, both a man and a young man. [1]  But once you see the synonymous parallelistic structure of the poetry, you realize that the wives of Lamech are Adah and Zillah, and that the man and the young man are one in the same.

A good illustration of this kind of confusion involves Matthew’s quotation of Zechariah 9:9:

Rejoice greatly, O daughter of Zion;

shout, O daughter of Jerusalem:

behold, thy King cometh unto thee:

he is just, and having salvation;

lowly, and riding upon an ass,

and upon a colt the foal of an ass. [Zech. 9:9]

Matthew thought the prophecy entailed riding on both an ass and a colt simultaneously, and so he awkwardly portrayed Jesus as doing that in the Triumphal Entry: “And brought the ass, and the colt, and put on them their clothes, and they set him thereon.” But of course he just misunderstood the poetry; the ass and the colt are parallel terms and are one in the same. Historically of course Jesus only rode one animal, and the JST corrects this to refer to a single animal only.

So here’s the point. One of the things I was going to mention in class tomorrow is that a basic understanding of Hebrew poetry will greatly aid our comprehension and enjoyment of all that Isaiah material in 2 Nephi that is usually such an impediment to us. And it occurred to me that there is a project one could do that would really drive this point home. (I envision this as something that seminary aged kids could do and benefit from.)

Here’s what you do: Copy 2 Nephi 12 into a Word document. (I like to use the database at the University of Michigan because it’s just plain text.) Then go to the Bible Gateway and open Isaiah 2 in the New Revised Standard Version. In your word processor, format the text into poetic lines just as it is given in the NRSV. I would also add the same in-text headings as the NRSV uses: “The Future House of God” for verses 1-4 and “Judgment Pronounced on Arrogance” for verses 5-22.

When you are done you will have the Book of Mormon text but presented with state of the art formatting so you can clearly read the text as poetry, not prose. Repeat this process for the rest of the Isaiah block chapters in 2 Nephi, and print out the result and keep it in your scriptures (or post a pdf somewhere where you can readily access it online). Your kids’ comprehension and appreciation of the text will ratchet way up by appropriately reading it as poetry, not prose, and they’ll be able to make their way through the text without just throwing up their hands and giving up, which as things stand is the more common experience.

You don’t have to go to all this effort if you don’t want to; the alternative is to read Grant Hardy’s Reader’s Edition, which does the work for you and already presents the text as poetry with appropriate in-text captions. I just think that if someone goes to the effort of creating this textual presentation herself, she is more likely to internalize it and fully appreciate it.

[1] A common practice is to form a parallel by adding a modifier to the second occurrence of a repeated noun, symbolically A//AB, as in lion//young lion, goat//wild goat, cedars//cedars of Lebanon, or in this case man//young man.


  1. This is an excellent idea, Kevin!

  2. Chris O. says:

    I think there’s some interesting irony in the idea that Matthew’s gospel is trying to speak to Jews (emphasis on Jesus on Moses, fulfillment quotations, etc) at the same time that he misunderstands basic stuff like poetic parallelisms.

    That said, I think you’re absolutely right about the formatting. That alone improved my understanding of Isaiah and other biblical poetry significantly. Thanks for the great idea!

  3. Aussie Mormon says:

    I only had the patience to do the first bit (The Future House of God), but that’s pretty cool.

  4. Anon for this says:

    It is rather deliciously ironic that in a post about Hebrew poetry, with several references to parallelism, in which the same concept is expressed twice (or more) using slightly different terms, an English idiom employing the same kind of parallelism, “one and the same,” is mid-written as “one in the same.”

  5. Anon for this says:

    Or “mis-written” if autocorrect is napping.

  6. While I have several issues with the book otherwise, Ludlow’s Isaiah: Prophet, Seer, Poet was fantastic for teaching the poetry. I’m not saying there might not be other better books. (You’re much better versed in that than I am Kevin) However it really is a very good choice if you’re trying to introduce these issues to the typical member.

  7. pconnornc says:

    I whole heartedly endorse Hardy’s “Reader’s Edition”, for this and other sections. If you have found yourself reading the BoM for the umpteenth time and are looking for a new way to appreciate the book, Hardy’s is a great resource.

  8. Kevin Barney says:

    Anon, thanks for catching that. I agree, a fitting ironic slip on my part!

    And yes, I’m a great admirer of Grant’s Reader’s Edition. My review is available here:

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