What Has Isaiah To Do With Nephi?

In the neighborhood where I grew up, there was a yard that had landscaping that baffled me.  It was a grassy plain with a few small trees, and then about a half-dozen boulders scattered among the grass.  The boulders were what baffled me—they didn’t seem to fit in with the landscaping around them and they certainly made mowing the lawn more complicated than it otherwise would have been.  I’m sure they made sense to the person who put them there, but as far as I could see, it seemed like the homeowners had survived a meteor shower and then decided to live around the scattered meteorites rather than remove them from their yard.

Up until recently, I felt much the same way about the Isaiah chapters in 1 Nephi and 2 Nephi.  They seemed like meteorites dropped into the middle of the text, or perhaps strange filler episodes that didn’t help move the plot forward.  When I came across them, I generally acknowledged that they were Isaiah, skimmed over them and moved on without trying to understand how they fit into the rest of what Nephi was saying.  Watching me read Isaiah in the Book of Mormon would have resembled watching my neighbors mow around the boulders in their yard.  That may be a show of my own failings in approaching the scriptures, but I suspect that I’m not alone in taking that approach.

Lately, however, I’ve been trying to figure out how the Isaiah chapters fit in with what’s around them.  It’s an ongoing project, but I am starting to feel more like Isaiah was foundational to Lehi and Nephi’s worldview.  Nephi, after all, was willing to kill to get his hands on a copy of the book (along with other records that became part of the Hebrew Bible) because he believed that it was essential to preserving his culture and religion among his descendants (see 1 Nephi 4:13-16).  Nephi notes that he turned to Isaiah and the Torah most frequently as the basis of his own teachings (1 Nephi 19:23), which is very apparent in the Book of Mormon as we have received it.  As Terryl Givens put it: “The earliest writers in the Book of Mormon, Nephi and Jacob, ground their prophetic worldview in the writings of Isaiah.”[1]

There seem to be two main topics that Nephi learned from Isaiah, the first of which was the exile and restoration of Israel.  The text of Isaiah was written against a backdrop of conquest by powerful empires and the people of Israel and Judah hoping for God to intervene and return them to their homeland.  As one Biblical scholar summarized it: “The book of Isaiah serves as a theological reflection upon Jerusalem’s experience of threat, exile, and restoration.”[2]  Nephi loved to “liken [Isaiah’s] words unto my people,”[3] and he felt that Isaiah’s reflections applied to his own family’s exile from Jerusalem and eventual restoration to Zion.  He read the “words of the prophet” to his people, “who are a remnant of the house of Israel, and branch who have been broken off,” so that they “may have hope” (1 Nephi 19:24).  Immediately after the first block of Isaiah chapters in 1 Nephi, he comments on the tribes of Israel being scattered (including his own descendants) because “they harden their hearts” against “the Holy One of Israel” (1 Nephi 22:5).  Yet, after that scattering, “the Lord God will proceed to do a marvelous work among the Gentiles, which shall be of great worth” to the descants of Lehi, the house of Israel, and Gentiles (1 Nephi 22:8-9).  Nephi’s understood Isaiah to be speaking both of his family’s experiences and future as well of those of the House of Israel in general.

The marvelous work Nephi spoke of while interpreting Isaiah would involve fulfilling ancient covenants.  As Nephi wrote: “[The Lord God] will bring them again out of captivity, and they shall be gathered together to the lands of their inheritance; … and they shall know that the Lord is their Savior and their Redeemer, the Mighty One of Israel” (1 Nephi 22:12).  By referencing these two points, Nephi ties his interpretation of Isaiah to the promises God made to Abraham that He would “give to you, and to your offspring after you … all the land of Canaan, for a perpetual holding” and that he would “be God to you and to your offspring after you.”[4]  In doing so, Nephi is also likely referencing Isaiah’s own reiteration of the covenant that “the Lord, they Redeemer, the Holy One of Israel” made with Israel in 1 Nephi 20:17-21.[5]  Thus, the hope Nephi had for his kin because of Isaiah’s words was centered on promises of the Abrahamic Covenant being fulfilled.

The second main topic that Nephi draws on Isaiah to teach is the subject of the Messiah or Christ.  Isaiah refers to a servant (or servants) of God throughout the text and repeatedly refers to God as “thy Redeemer, the Holy One of Israel” (1 Nephi 20:17).  On one level, the servant Isaiah seems to be referring to Israel as God’s chosen people or specific individuals chosen to do a work like Cyrus (the Persian emperor who conquered Babylon and restored the Jews to their ancestral homeland).  Christians, however, have frequently interpreted these references to be prophesies of Jesus the Christ.  Handel’s Messiah is an ample testimony of that fact, given approximately a third of the movements in the oratorio are based on texts in Isaiah (and yes, I fully expect a few readers to start humming the “For, Unto Us a Child is Born” choral piece here).

Nephi, Lehi, and Jacob likewise understood the text of Isaiah to be referring to the Lamb of God that they had learned about through visions and revelations.  Hence, Nephi delighted in the words of Isaiah because “he verily saw my Redeemer, even as I have seen him” (2 Nephi 11:2).  It also explains why Nephi spent a considerable amount of time before and after copying Isaiah’s text into his record saying that “we talk of Christ, we rejoice in Christ, we preach of Christ” (2 Nephi 25:26), and that the “Holy One of Israel … shall execute judgement in righteousness” (1 Nephi 22:21).

Both of these major subjects that Nephi drew on Isaiah to discuss are central to 1 Nephi and 2 Nephi.  The core narrative of these books is about a group of Israelites that go into exile, but who will be given a land of promise.  Eventually, Nephi prophesied, their descendants would participate in the fulfillment of the Abrahamic Covenant and the restoration of all Israel through “the words of the book, which are the words of those who have slumbered in the dust” (2 Nephi 27:9).  Also central to both the restoration of Israel and the writings of Nephi was the Holy One of Israel, who Nephi believed was the Christ.  When viewed through this lens, Nephi’s writings use Isaiah as part of their religious bedrock rather than Isaiah existing as random meteorites that ended up in Nephi’s record.

 

Footnotes:

[1] Terryl L. Givens, By the Hand of Mormon: The American Scripture that Launched a New World Religion (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002), 45.

[2] Marvin A. Sweeney in Michael Coogan (ed.), The New Oxford Annotated Bible, 4th ed. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010), 967.  The book of Isaiah seems to have been written against the backdrop of three phases of Israelitish captivity and restoration.  Isaiah chapters 1-39 deal with the destruction of the Northern Kingdom by Assyria, chapters 40-55 with the Southern Kingdom’s conquest by Babylon, and the remainder (chapters 56-66), with the Persian restoration of Jerusalem and Judah.  I recognize that the chronology of Isaiah in this regard is problematic to the Book of Mormon, since it indicates that Nephi was quoting materials that likely hadn’t been written yet, but that’s beyond the scope of this post.

[3] 2 Nephi 11:2, see also 1 Nephi 19:23.

[4] Genesis 17:7-8.  Bible references herein are cited from the New Revised Standard Version unless otherwise specified.  See also 1 Nephi 22:9, referencing Genesis 22:18 for Nephi referring directly to the Abrahamic Covenant.

[5] This is equivalent to Isaiah 58:17-21 and reads as follows (based on the Maxwell Institute Study Edition of the Book of Mormon):

 

And thus saith the Lord, thy Redeemer, the Holy One of Israel:

“I have sent him.”

The Lord thy God who teacheth thee to profit,

who leadeth thee by the way thou shouldst go,

hath done it.

 

O that thou hadst hearkened to my commandments!

Then had thy peace been as a river,

and thy righteousness as the waves of the sea.

Thy seed also had been as the sand,

 the offspring of thy bowels like the gravel thereof;

His name should not have been cut off,

nor destroyed from before me.

 

Go ye forth of Babylon,

 flee ye from the Chaldeans,

with a voice of singing declare ye, tell this,

utter to the end of the earth; say ye:

“The Lord hath redeemed his servant Jacob.”

And they thirsted not;

 he led them through the deserts.

He caused the waters to flow out of the rock for them;

he clave the rock also and the waters gushed out.

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