The JST as an Issue Spotting Exercise

When I use the expression “issue spotting,” all the lawyers will nod knowingly and everyone else will wonder “huh?” The expression “issue spotting” has particular reference to law school exams. Those exams are not like tests you take in the BYU Testing Center with a number two pencil. Rather, they tend to be little stories or essays. The first job of the student taking the test is to identify all the potential legal issues embedded in the story; thus “issue spotting.” The questions aren’t laid out for you; you have to figure out what the questions are yourself. Then you have to answer those questions by applying the applicable law to the facts. Spotting the issues and then applying the law to the facts are both important tasks for the test taker, but issue spotting is the most important, because if you don’t spot the issues by definition you won’t be able to respond to the implicit questions in the fact pattern, and you simply will not do well on the test. (Don’t ask me how I know this…)

There are a lot of different things going on in the JST, but in some respects I see it as an issue spotting exercise. Joseph would read the KJV and in the process would be on the lookout for anomalies in the text. When he found such anomalies, he would propose a resolution and dictate that to his scribe. Sometimes his proposed solution worked pretty well, other times, not so much. But you can usually see what the anomaly was he was trying to address. He was basically issue spotting the Bible.

A good way to see this is to consider Genesis 6:6:

And it repented the LORD that he had made man on the earth, and it grieved him at his heart.

This verse has the Lord “repenting.” But repentance implies sin, and presumably God doesn’t sin. So Joseph changed the passage to read as follows:

And it repented Noah, and his heart was pained that the LORD had made man on the earth, and it grieved him at the heart.

Just from looking at the revision we can be pretty sure what Joseph was thinking here. But this is the rare case where we happen to have an actual explanation from the man himself:

As it [the Bible] read it repented the Lord that he had made man.  and also God is not a man that he should repent. –which I do not believe. –but it repented Noah that God made man.  –this I believe, & then the other quotation stands fair.” (Ehat and Cook, Words of Joseph Smith  (1980), 256.)

I see three anomalies that may have influenced Joseph here. First is the odd construction “it repented the Lord that.” Many of the other passages have a more straightforward “the Lord repented,” but this was Joseph’s first encounter with this issue. I don’t know for sure, but I suspect that the odd construction was an attempt by the KJV translators to represent the Hebrew verb nicham. The verb is in the niphal verb stem in Hebrew, which is normally a passive form. But this particular verb does not exist in the qal (simple active verb stem), and so the niphal should often be translated as an active, not a passive. The weird KJV construction looks a fair bit to me as though they were trying to split the baby on this between a passive and an active construction.

Second is a lexical issue. Today we use “repent” almost exclusively in a technical sense, meaning to repent from sin. Thus, that verb predicated of God seems to assert that God himself sins. So I think we can definitely see where Joseph is coming from here. I think the reality is that there has been a little bit of linguistic drift with this verb. To us it means to repent from sin, and to Joseph it meant that as well. But when you go back far enough, “repent” could be used in either technical or non-technical senses. The non-technical sense of repent made it a synonym of English “rue,” (to feel sorry or to regret, but no sin implied). Very old translations or those in the KJV tradition use “repent” here, but modern translations do not, being pretty evenly divided between “the Lord regretted” or “the Lord was sorry,” no implication of prior sin intended. In this sense the JST is making a commentary on the text to the effect that God doesn’t sin, a commentary we wouldn’t need if we would just read modern English translations. (Joseph would have had an easier time dealing with this issue a few years later after attending the Kirtland Hebrew School.)

Third, there is a harmonization of this passage with Numbers 23:19:

God is not a man, that he should lie;

neither the son of man, that he should repent:

hath he said, and shall he not do it?

or hath he spoken, and shall he not make it good?

Here “repent” is used in the technical sense, and the verse affirms that that is not something that God does.

At the bottom of this post I give a dozen passages where the JST modifies the text to avoid predicating the verb “repent” of God. There are two main strategies Joseph uses in these passages. First is to modify the passage to predicate the verb of some human actor (since humans are by definition prone to sin and need repentance) rather than God. Genesis 6:6 is one such example; Noah gets introduced into the text two verses later, but the JST moves our first mention of Noah up two verses so as to ascribe the repentance spoken of in verse 6 to the human and fallible Noah and not to the immortal and infallible God.

In some passages, however, he takes a different tack and simply changes “repent” to some other verb. This would have been the better approach (indeed, it is what all modern translations do)

So, to read these JST emendations correctly, we need to focus on the true point Joseph is seeking to express. The point isn’t that Noah repented that God had made man on the earth; that was just a convenient way to make his real point, which is this: God does not sin, and therefore God does not repent.

Below I give all 12 passages in the OT (this construction does not appear in the NT) where the JST modifies the text to make this point, giving deleted text in italics and added text in bold. As an issue spotting exercise, Joseph is correct that God does not repent (in the technical sense). In reading these passages we should focus on that one point and not put too much stock in the other textual machinations he goes through to get there.


1. Genesis 6:6 (Moses 8:25)
And it repented Noah, and his heart was pained that the LORD that he had made man on the earth, and it grieved him at histhe heart.

2. Exodus 32:12
Wherefore should the Egyptians speak, and say, For mischief did he bring them out, to slay them in the mountains, and to consume them from the face of the earth? Turn from thy fierce wrath, andthy people will repent of this evil, therefore come thou not out against thy peoplethem.

3. Exodus 32:14
And the LORD repented of the evil which he thought to do unto hissaid unto Moses, if they will repent of the evil which they have done, I will spare them, and turn away my fierce wrath; but, behold, thou shalt execute judgment upon all that will not repent of their evil this day. Therefore, see thou do this thing that I have commanded thee, or I will execute all that which I had thought to do unto my people.

4. Judges 2:18
And when the LORD raised them up judges, then the LORD was with the judge, and delivered them out of the hand of their enemies all the days of the judge: for it repented the LORD hearkened because of their groanings by reason of them that oppressed them and vexed them.

5. 1 Samuel 15:35
And Samuel came no more to see Saul until the day of his death: nevertheless Samuel mourned for Saul: and the LORD repented thatrent the kingdom from Saul, whom he had made Saul king over Israel.

6. 2 Samuel 24:16
And when the angel stretched out his hand upon Jerusalem to destroy it, the LORD repented himStay now thine hand, it is enough; for the people repented and the Lord stayed the hand of the evil, and said to the angelAngel, that he destroyed not the people, It is enough: stay now thine hand. And and the angel of the LORD was by the threshingplacethreshhold of Araunah the Jebusite.

7. 1 Chronicles 21:15
And God sent an angelthe Angel stretched forth his hand unto Jerusalem to destroy it: and God said to the Angel, Stay now thine hand, it is enough, for as he was destroying, the LORDLord beheld Israel, andthat he repented him of the evil, and said to the angel; therefore the Lord stayed the Ange[l] that destroyed, It is enough, stay now thine hand. And the angel of the LORDas he stood by the threshingfloorthreshing floor of Ornan the Jebusite.

8. Psalms 106:45
And he remembered for them his covenant, and repentedspared his people according to the multitude of his mercies.

9. Jeremiah 26:19
Did Hezekiah king of Judah and all Judah put him at all to death? did he not fear the LORD, and besought the LORD and repented, and the LORD repented him ofturned away the evil which he had pronounced against them? Thus by putting Jeremiah to death we might we procure great evil against our souls.

10. Amos 7:3
The LORD repentedAnd the Lord said, concerning Jacob, Jacob shall repent for this: It shall, therefore I will not beutterly destroy him, saith the LORD.
11. Amo

s 7:6
The LORD repented for this: This also shall not beAnd the Lord said, concerning Jacob—Jacob shall repent of his wickedness; therefore, I will not utterly destroy him, saith the Lord GOD.

12. Jonah 3:10
And God saw their works, that they turned from their evil way; and God repented of; and God turned away the evil, that he had said that he would do untobring upon them; and he did it not.


  1. I’m trying to count the number of ways I love this. The legal analogy? The linguistic analysis? The way it comprehensively examines a single example to make a broader point about translation and commentary and text? Thanks so much Kevin.

  2. really great — what I see in the Genesis 6:6 phrase seems to be an attempt by the KJV translators to employ a dative construction, something Joseph Smith wouldn’t be familiar with. German translations, for example (including the Luther Bible) use “reuen” as an accusative construction together with “the Lord” (“den HERRN”), i.e. “rue” or “regret”, as you noted.

    Sadly, Joseph Smith’s effort here is inconsistent because he uses the same faux-dative construction when he substitutes Noah, so he’s not really saying Noah repented for anything either, but similarly saying Noah regretted it.

  3. As a law school graduate, I love the analogy.

  4. Thanks for this post. Very helpful explanation of Joseph’s approach here. Wasn’t Joseph relying very heavily upon the commentary of other Bible scholars (ie Clarke) for this? There’s a short BYU blog post about the connection that I read last year, but I haven’t heard anything further about it. In any event, it seems unfortunate/misleading to keep going with the “translation” narrative here when there’s a more accurate description for this part of the scriptures as presented by the OP.

  5. Kevin Barney says:

    Joseph did make use of secondary sources such as the Adam Clarke commentary, but a great deal of what he did was his own take on things and not derived from any secondary source.

  6. IIRC, didn’t Joseph leave some of the “God repenting” passages? I’d assumed that he just missed them. (Can’t find where I wrote about this. Perhaps it was God doing evil? Ah, it WAS that. )

    He may have solved certain problems with Noah repenting instead of God, but in doing so, created others which I think are larger.

  7. Kevin Barney says:

    Thanks, Ben. I see that I missed the repetition in verse 7. I did a search on the -ed verb ending, and that one is an -eth. So yeah, I don’t warrant that this list is exhaustive, but it seemed extensive enough to make the point.

  8. What a great post, Kevin.

    This is such a productive way to read the JST.

  9. Many thanks, Kevin Barney. This post and others like it that expound the scriptures and explain the culture in which they were written are what I love most about BCC. I’m grateful to all of you who share your deeper understanding with the rest of us.

  10. @Grateful JS used Clarke commentary and I believe Wayment and another discovered this, podcasted and are writing about it. Yes, Wayment from the LDS NT translation.

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