In the LDS curriculum, we are now plodding through the Isaiah chapters in Second Nephi. So here is another installment on the Book of Mormon (previous post on 1 Nephi 1). I’m going to focus on 2 Nephi 9, which follows chapters 7 and 8 (Isaiah 50 and 51, more or less) and presents itself as a commentary on those two chapters. But only the first few verses of 2 Nephi 9 relate to the Isaiah material. By verse 5, Jacob (the speaker in the text) is talking about God showing himself to “those at Jerusalem” (another example of modalism, discussed in the previous post). By verses 6 and 7, it’s death, the resurrection, the Fall, and the Atonement. That’s a long way from Isaiah 50 and 51. The chapter is more like a Christian sermon than an exposition or even expansion of Isaiah 50 and 51. So what’s going on?
What Doesn’t Make Sense
To start with, the material on the brass plates, held out not as an early prototype of the Hebrew Bible or our Christian Old Testament (that, according to our current understanding, would be edited into the version we now have during the exile and post-exilic period) but as a more complete version of the Hebrew Bible, at least for the material available up to roughly 597 BC, when (in the text) Lehi and his group left Jerusalem. Chapter 13 in First Nephi tells that that the Christian Old Testament “is a record like unto the engravings which are upon the plates of brass, save there are not so many” (1 Ne. 13:23). What’s missing in our current Old Testament? “[M]any parts which are plain and most precious” (v. 26). Who removed these plain and precious parts? The great and abominable church, formed after the twelve apostles did their work (v. 24).
Two problems with this story. First, if the material in the brass plates as quoted throughout the Books of Nephi is so plain, why do we need page after page of explanation? If the brass plates version of Isaiah 50 and 51, as quoted in 2 Nephi 7 and 8, is so plain, why does Jacob spend roughly seven pages explaining it? And if that material was so plain, why does Jacob’s long explanation seem to talk about so many topics that seem to have nothing to do with 2 Nephi 7 and 8? The same phenomenon appears in 2 Nephi 25-33, presented as a commentary on the brass plates version of Isaiah 2-14, as laid out in 2 Nephi 12-24. Nephi’s commentary doesn’t really have much to do with the quoted Isaiah material but presents a lot of Christian doctrine.
The second problem with the story is that we now have a very good text of the Book of Isaiah from the Dead Sea Scrolls that goes back to the first century BC, well before the supposedly plain material was removed from the book, according to the Book of Mormon claim. Guess what? It’s pretty much just like the Book of Isaiah manuscripts from the first millennium AD that we had to rely on previously. There is no evidence that there was material removed. If changes over time occurred to books in the Bible, it was by expansion and addition, not by subtraction.
Just as a quick aside, some of these thoughts echo material and discussion in R. John Williams’ “The Ghost and the Machine: Plates and Paratext in the Book of Mormon,” chapter two in Americanist Approaches to The Book of Mormon (OUP, 2019), edited by Elizabeth Fenton and Jared Hickman. I read the essay last week. You should buy the book and read the essay. In a few months I’ll post a review here.
What Does Make Sense
If the Isaiah material in the Book of Mormon isn’t a plainer version of Isaiah and if it doesn’t present important material that Jacob and Nephi then summarize and explicate, then what is it? Who knows? Maybe it’s just filler. If you ever had to write a ten-page paper in college when you only have five pages of ideas, you know what I’m talking about. Do you have a better idea?
What does make sense is reading Isaiah in the context of the late eighth century BC, when Judah was threatened by the historical Assyrians and the historical Isaiah urged the historical Hezekiah to stand firm while the Assyrians besieged Jerusalem.
What does make sense is Second Isaiah (40-55) in the context of the Jewish exiles in Babylon in the sixth century BC, pining for a return to their homeland in Judah. Salvation was a return to Jerusalem, and the messiah was God’s agent in expediting that return, who turned out to be historical Cyrus, ruler of Persia, who conquered the historical Babylonians and then supported the return of the Jewish exiles (at least those who would go) back to Jersusalem.
What does make sense is Third Isaiah (55-66) on the theme of the rebuilt temple. It’s not as big or fancy as the original temple, but it was still precious to the small group of returned exiles and their descendants.
Anything Else in 2 Nephi 9?
If you ignore the Isaiah link and just read 2 Nephi 9 as an independent discourse, there’s a lot of interesting stuff. Spirits from hell and paradise, and bodies from the dust get, reunited in a physical resurrection (v. 10-12). At judgement, the devil and his angels (v. 16) are sent to “everlasting fire,” while all the resurrected folks, both good and evil (the “righteous” and the “filthy,” as described in the text) go to the Good Place. It’s a little confusing, but it sure seems like “the devil and his angels” refers to non-resurrected spirits (that one-third that followed Satan and never got a body so they could not be resurrected, but they do apparently get judged) and everyone else, whether righteous or filthy, gets resurrected and judged and none of these go off to everlasting fire (the Bad Place). It sure sounds like universalism (excluding the devil and his angels), notwithstanding the firm rejection of universalism in Alma 1 (see 1:4 in particular). There’s some confusion about who is resurrected with a body and who isn’t, and the text in verses 10-16 is a little confusing in light of later LDS doctrine, but that’s how I read it. If you think you deserve a nicer place in heaven than your heathen neighbor down the street, go read the D&C 76 version of “universal salvation with several levels” and you’ll feel better about it.
At the end of the chapter, Isaiah 55:1-2 is quoted at 2 Nephi 9:50-51. That’s very clear in my Maxwell Institute Study Edition of the Book of Mormon, another book you ought to buy. What’s also clear is about 20 extra words inserted into Isaiah 55:2, as quoted at 2 Nephi 9:51. It’s just spliced right in there, right in the middle of a classic Hebrew poetic parallelism. Here’s the KJV for Isaiah 55:2, rendered in poetic lines:
Wherefore do ye spend money for that which is not bread?
and your labour for that which satisfieth not?
Hearken diligently unto me, and eat that which is good,
and let your soul delighteth in fatness.
And here is 2 Nephi 9:51, with the chunk of added material in bold type:
Wherefore, do not spend money for that which is of no worth,
nor your labor for that which cannot satisfy.
Hearken diligently unto me,
and remember the words which I have spoken;
and come unto the Holy One of Israel,
and feast upon that which perisheth not,
neither can be corrupted,
and let your soul delighteth in fatness.
You can see how the added material destroys the flow of the parallelism. That added chunk would not have been part of an original rendering of the verse unless the author was a very bad poet (and Second Isaiah was a very good Hebrew poet). So make of it what you will.
A final remark and a prompt. Because the orthodox LDS approach requires the square peg of the Book of Isaiah to be pounded into a round Book of Mormon hole, the LDS scholarship on Isaiah is (for me, at least) largely worthless. If you want to understand Isaiah 50-51, don’t read 2 Nephi 9 or an LDS commentary, just get a good translation and read non-LDS scholarship. I have The Book of Isaiah: A New Translation (Jewish Publication Society of America, 1972), which I actually bought at BYU for an Isaiah class. For the Old Testament and Isaiah, I read among others Brueggemann’s An Introduction to the Old Testament, Marc Zvi Brettler’s How to Read the Jewish Bible, and Robert Alter and Frank Kermode’s The Literary Guide to the Bible.
The prompt: So was there any discussion of Isaiah and what it’s doing in the Book of Mormon in your LDS Sunday School class? Or any other LDS class, whether seminary or Institute or BYU? I don’t mean that like “how on earth is Second Isaiah in the Book of Mormon?” I mean any discussion of what the Isaiah chunks are actually doing. How are they furthering the narrative? Did anyone in the class, for instance, raise their hand and say, “When I am feeling sad and depressed, I read the Isaiah chapters in Second Nephi, and I am comforted.” Or maybe, “Second Nephi seemed confusing until I came to the quoted Isaiah material, and then it all made sense.” I’m just wondering whether anyone has heard such a remark. Ever.