2 Nephi 26 tweet: Christ will show himself & bring new law. 4G to pass in peace. In the last days there will b a voice from the dust. God denieth none.
2 Nephi 27 tweet: Last days there will b a deep sleep & a sealed book from those who slumber. Learned cannot read. Unlearned will read. Lord will do a MW&W.
This has been a tough post to write as there is so much to cover here. What I’ll try and do is provide an overview of what Nephi is doing with Isaiah 29 in these chapters. And then I’ll take a closer look at a few key verses.
There is something unique about how Nephi uses the writings of Isaiah in 2 Nephi 26–27 that isn’t found in the rest of 1 and 2 Nephi. In the rest of Nephi’s record, Isaiah quotations consist of entire chapters taken directly from Isaiah without added asides or commentary inserted by Nephi (in particular, see 1 Nephi 20–21 [compare Isaiah 48–49] and 2 Nephi 12–24 [compare Isaiah 2–14]). Furthermore, Nephi explicitly highlights the fact that he is quoting Isaiah (see 1 Nephi 19:23–24, which precedes his quotation of Isaiah 48–49, and 2 Nephi 11:8, which precedes his quotation of Isaiah 2–14). In contrast, in 2 Nephi 26–27, Nephi intersperses quotations from Isaiah 29 with substantial amounts of text written by himself, and he does this without specifically mentioning that he is using Isaiah. Nephi’s method here appears to be one of adaptation rather than duplication. In these chapters, Nephi deliberately and systematically repurposes Isaiah 29 to his own prophetic ends.
The Mormon Theology Seminar convened over a period of ~3 months to study these two chapters. For those who are interested, the published proceedings of the 2 Nephi 26–27 seminar can be found here. In the introduction to those proceedings, the editors write the following summary about this part of Nephi’s work:
In these chapters, Nephi carefully reads the writings of Isaiah (specifically Isaiah 29) in a multifaceted process that involves copying, interpreting, contextualizing, repurposing, recontextualizing, and prophesying – often all at once. Nephi’s own rereading of Isaiah’s original text powerfully illuminates what it means to actively but faithfully engage in the difficult and unavoidably creative work of reading scripture.1
They then provide the following example of Nephi’s work:
In a … striking illustration of Nephi’s freedom in adapting the text of Isaiah 29 to his own purposes, he transforms into two distinct events what in Isaiah 29 is clearly only one historical event. Language originally describing just the singular fall of Jerusalem is thus employed to describe both the ancient fall of the Nephite nation and the latter-day fall of the Gentile nations. Nephi accomplishes this curious appropriation by inserting into the middle of his quotation of Isaiah 29:5–6 a lengthy aside that contains no actual Isaiah text (verses 19–33 of 2 Nephi 26 and verse 1 of 2 Nephi 27). The aside thus serves as a textual break that traces the major temporal shift from the end of the Nephites (around 400 CE) to the arrival of the Gentiles in the New World (around 1500 CE). Though verses 5 and 6 of Isaiah 29 both refer to the same event, in Nephi’s account the two verses are distributed among references to two intertwined but temporally distinct events.2
Beyond Nephi’s own prophetic writings then, what we find in these chapters is a model for how we might read scripture. This same pattern can also be observed in the revelations that Joseph Smith received in which he freely drew upon and extended the interpretation of other scriptures (see for example his expansion of the writings of John in D&C 93). And to a lesser extent it might also be seen in the writings and sermons of some notable apostles. In particular, I have in mind Elder McConkie. In his final, landmark address he said:
I feel, and the Spirit seems to accord, that the most important doctrine I can declare, and the most powerful testimony I can bear, is of the atoning sacrifice of the Lord Jesus Christ. . . . In speaking of these wondrous things I shall use my own words, though you may think they are the words of scripture, words spoken by other Apostles and prophets.
True it is they were first proclaimed by others, but they are now mine, for the Holy Spirit of God has borne witness to me that they are true, and it is now as though the Lord had revealed them to me in the first instance. I have thereby heard his voice and know his word.3 (Emphasis added)
So is this way of reading scripture and in essence claiming them as our own the preserve of just prophets and apostles? I don’t think so. I like the perspective of Adam Miller:
When you read the scriptures, don’t just lay your eyes like stones on the pages. Roll up your sleeves and translate them again … Word by word, line by line, verse by verse, chapter by chapter, God wants the whole thing translated once more, and this time he wants it translated into your native tongue, inflected by your native concerns, and written in your native flesh. To be a Mormon is to do once more, on your own small scale, the same kind of work that Joseph did.4
This is what Nephi was doing with Isaiah 29, what Joseph did with John, and what Elder McConkie did with many prophets. I think this is what we have to try and do with all of our scriptures – repurpose what was received in the past for our lives in the 21st century. I’ll revisit this idea again in the next post.
There’s so much more to say about the content of these chapters but to try and keep things moving I’ll just make a couple of comments about the Martin Harris – Charles Anthon story, which we typically read as a fulfilment of 2 Nephi 27:15–18. I won’t get into the story itself and the various accounts of what actually happened; rather, I’d like to suggest that in this story we might see a pattern that is applicable to all those who engage with the Book of Mormon.
When we read 2 Nephi 27 we should draw a distinction between “the book” (the gold plates) and “the words of the book” (what would have been originally the English translation). With this in mind, I think there is an impulse within all of us to say “Bring hither the book, and I will read them.” (2 Ne 27:15) Or, in essence, show me the plates.
But Nephi’s point is that this approach is wrong-headed – to say that we need the plates in order to read the words of the book is to misunderstand the purpose for which the words of the book were given. The task of latter-day readers of the Book of Mormon is to grapple with the words of the book, specifically subtracted from the book itself. Which leaves us asking, what purpose do the plates serve? Joe Spencer frames it this way:
Joseph can produce a translation, but he has no idea what to do with the plates themselves. He couldn’t begin to construct a Nephite alphabet and grammar (his work on this sort of a project later with the Abraham papyri is witness enough in that regard). So why have both of these?
The upshot of all this is the following: The gold plates are excessive… there’s a sense in which it was entirely unnecessary for Joseph to have dug up gold plates at all. Why bother with this historical artifact that nearly got him killed a few times, that led to all kinds of trouble, that tempted him to turn a profit on the Book of Mormon, that gives fodder to South Park for their “dumb dumb dumb dumb dumb” story, etc.? Joseph can’t use the gold plates for anything (he translates through the stones), and none of us gets to see them at all, let alone use them to make clearer sense of the Book of Mormon’s ancient bearing. Why didn’t God simply reveal the words of the Book of Mormon directly to Joseph, something like the content of D&C 7? Why the gold plates?5
I skirt this issue in these previous posts on Book of Mormon translation. But in essence, I think that the gold plates (the book itself) are a deliberate stumbling block. Typically stumbling blocks have negative connotations, but even Christ has been described as a stumbling block (see 1 Cor 1:23). I think the point of the missing plates is so that God can demonstrate he does not work “among the children of men save it be according to their faith.” (2 Ne 27:23) As much as this jars with our post-modern rational minds, what I think we have to accept is that ultimately the only way to relate to the Book of Mormon is through faith and as one who is unlearned:
The Book of Mormon is given in the last days in such a way that it has to be a question of faith—that one has to relate to something entirely unproven and even deeply problematic. God intends us to see the Book of Mormon as hard to believe. And the result is that “the learned shall not read” the words of the book.5
Next week’s reading: 2 Nephi 28
- Reading Nephi Reading Isaiah, p. 2
- Ibid. p. 8
- Adam Miller, Letters to a Young Mormon, p. 32–33