Isaiah and the Restoration

Most LDS wards and branches are now beginning their coverage of the Book of Isaiah as part of the Sunday School Old Testament curriculum. Isaiah’s prominence in the scriptures and the doctrines of the restored gospel cannot be overstated:

  • 66 discreet allusions to or quotations of Isaiah appear in the New Testament
  • 406 of the Book of Mormon’s 6604 verses (6.1%) are inclusions of Isaiah
  • An entire section of the Doctrine and Covenants (§113) focuses on deciphering Isaiah
  • Joseph Smith reported that Moroni quoted Isaiah 11 to him during their first encounter (JSH 1:40)

Despite this, Isaiah rarely gets much attention in our community beyond some scripture-mastery one-liners, a high-endurance sprint through 2 Nephi 12-24, and Handel’s Messiah. Many main figures of the Book of Mormon, especially Nephi, Jacob, Abinadai, Jesus, and Moroni, hold Isaiah’s words in such high regard that a reader simply cannot truly grasp their motivations, sensibilities, personal theologies, and even teachings without understanding what Isaiah means to them.  To do that, of course, requires first an understanding of what Isaiah is all about to begin with.

Avraham Gileadi and the Dead Sea Scrolls

The premier LDS Scholar of Isaiah is without a doubt Avraham Gileadi, although noteworthy contributions have been produced by Victor Ludlow, Donald Parry, Hoyt Brewster, Monte Nyman, Joseph Spencer, and Ann Madsen. Gileadi’s most unique contributions to Isaiah studies stem from the work of one William H. Brownlee, an eminent biblical scholar primarily recognized as one of the first people to realize the significance of what was included in the 1946 recovery of the long-lost Dead Sea Scrolls.

The crown jewel of the collection of scrolls is the “Great Isaiah Scroll,” known academically as 1QIsaa. This scroll, dating to no later than the 4th century, contains the entire text of the Book of Isaiah.  By the time it was discovered, German scholars such as Bernhard Duhm had already started analyzing the Book of Isaiah’s content, style, and subtext, and were proposing that Isaiah contains chronological and authorial divisions at chapter 40 and 56. Looking at the newly found Great Isaiah Scroll for indications of section breaks in these proposed demarcations yielded nothing noteworthy, but an unexpected finding emerged in the search:

In tussles over unity and multiplicity in Isaiah, and supposed divisions at chapters 39/40, 55/56, etc., almost nobody has bothered to look for tangible textual evidence. In the Dead Sea Scrolls there is just one positive indication, in the great, intact scroll of Isaiah, one of the first scrolls published. In this scroll, when he came to the end of what we today call chapter 33 (at 33:24), the ancient scribe deliberately left a blank space (equal to three lines’ depth), marking a break at the end of his column, before beginning a new column with what is now 34:1. This is very close to the midpoint of the entire book as he had it, and as we have it. The early scribe had some reason to divide here. (Kenneth Kitchen, On the Reliability of the Old Testament, 2003, page 378)

A facsimile of the scroll shows the 3-line break referred to:

Notice the blank area at the bottom of the second column from the right. This is where Isaiah 33 ends, despite additional room to continue writing. Chapter 34 begins on the column to its left, on a new sheet. (The document read from right-to-left)

When the text is divided at chapter 34 and the two halves are placed side-by-side, some surprising thematic patterns emerge.  Each half can be roughly divided into seven parts, with each part from one half containing thematic consistency with the corresponding part from the other half. This arrangement has become known as a Bifid structure:

Half 1
Chapters 1–33
Half 2
Chapters 34–66
Chapters Theme Chapters Theme
Part 1 1–5 Judgment and restoration 34–35 Desolation and restoration
Part 2 6–8 Biographical/historical and oracles 36–39 Historical/biographical accounts
Part 3 9–12 Words of blessing and judgment 40–45 Words of blessing and judgment
Part 4 13–23 Oracles on foreign nations (and one on Jerusalem) 46–48 Oracles on foreign nations (and on Babylon)
Part 5 24–27 Destruction, restoration, deliverance 49–55 Restorations, destruction, deliverance
Part 6 28–31 Social and ethical justice 56–59 Social and ethical justice
Part 7 32–33 Restoration of the nation 60–66 Restoration of the nation

Gileadi picked up where Brownlee left off, and produced a revision of the 7-part Bifid structure, with some minor adjustments of the part boundaries in an effort to disentangle thematic characteristics from literary genre.  The result is seven theme pairs which form a chiastic climax in part 4: the exaltation or humiliation corresponding with a final judgement. Additionally, the even-numbered parts–and their respective boundaries–are even more clearly identifiable by their genre: the story-telling in Isaiah occurs unambiguously in chapters 6–8 and 36–39; chapters 13–23 and 47 are direct oracles to named nations, and chapters 28–31 and 56–59 are didactic messages and sermons that stand in contrast to surrounding poetic or oracular writings. The startpoints and endpoints of the three genre boundaries in each half, combined with the Dead Sea Scroll scribal break at chapter 34, give clarity and precision to where the seven-part (fourteen-sub-part) divisions exists.

Half 1
Half 2
Theme Genre
Part 1 1–5 34–35 Ruin & Rebirth
Part 2 6–8 36–39  Rebellion & Compliance Historical Narrative
Part 3 9–12 41–46   Punishment & Deliverance
Part 4 13–23 47    Humiliation & Exaltation National Oracles
Part 5 24–27 48–55   Suffering & Salvation
Part 6 28–31 56–59  Disloyalty & Loyalty Ethical Sermons
Part 7 32–33 60–66 Disinheritance & Inheritance

Gileadi then went on to comb through the text of each of these units and parts and presents specific linguistic, typological, and structural evidence making a case for not only their thematic consistency, but also for a cohesive rhetorical message and prophetic vision that emerges from considering the text in such a paradigm.  The results of his study culminated in his 1994 (2012 second edition) monograph The Literary Message of Isaiah.

Literary Approaches for the Rest of Us

Expecting an everyday Latter-day Saint to open his or her quad, peruse Isaiah at home or in the church foyer, and emerge with an awareness of the implications of Isaiah’s words in the context of a thematically analogous, genre-alternating, seven-part chiastic bifid structure is beyond unreasonable. Yet, if (1) Isaiah’s message is really encoded in this manner, and (2) the Book of Mormon’s account of Jesus commanding his followers to “search these things diligently” (3 Nephi 23:1)  is to be taken seriously, then proper attention to not only the text, but also to its structure and subtextual interrelatedness is of paramount importance.

Applying new tools to the humanities is of great interest to me.  I try to keep up on the (largely unrelated) fields of consumer technologies and biblical/religious studies. In that vein, I have recently created and released an online tool I call the Isaiah Explorer.

The Isaiah explorer enables desktop web users to explore the Book of Isaiah in many kinds of interactive ways.  This includes the ability to do a deep-dive into the Bifid Structure:

The basics of what the tool is and how it works are presented in this brief tutorial video:

The answer to the opening challenge of “understanding of what Isaiah is all about to begin with” cannot be arrived at here.  But we can get closer to answer with these new tools. It is my hope that this year, making sense of the Book of Isaiah will be less daunting, more fruitful, and most illuminating.