In this section, Jacob is speaking by assignment on a topic from Nephi, (2Ne 6:4), and the topic is Isaiah.
When Bishop Nephi asked me to speak on Isaiah…
Now, if you’ve read my Old Testament material, you know I’ve never spent much time on Isaiah, and that holds here as well. Jacob quotes Isaiah 49:22-23, and moves beyond it into 50 as well. I actually reformatted the first two chapters to help make sense of this, here. That kind of thing is a great exercise.
Now, is quoting Isaiah 49 a problem? Well, kinda. There are
dramatic differences between the first section of the Book of Isaiah (chapters 1–39) and the second (chapters 40–66) [which] were already observed by classical Jewish commentators in the Middle Ages. For example R. Abraham ibn Ezra (1089–1164) deduced that the concluding portion of the prophecies was not the work of Isaiah ben Amoz, but of an anonymous prophet during the Babylonian exile.
Michael A. Fishbane, Haftarot, The JPS Bible Commentary, 535.
Building on that thousand-year-old observation, much scholarship today holds chapters 40-66 to be written by someone other than Isaiah, and after Lehi’s departure, based on language, theme, and style. There are various ways to account for its presence in the Book of Mormon, but the two extreme poles are:
a) following the majority position of the scholarship, it proves the Book of Mormon is a 19th-century book, or
b) contra mainstream scholarship, it proves that the Book of Isaiah is actually a unified book.
I don’t hold to either of these, and there are several positions in between; I don’t want to spend a lot of time on this, but I do think people should be aware of it.
Besides Isaiah, what is the foundation of Jacob’s discourse? According to 2 Ne 6:9-11, Jacob has learned some of what he is preaching from an angel. 10:3 tells us that the angel appeared the night before his discourse. (Sidenote: How many of you have been assigned to talk on Isaiah, and desperately wished for an angel to appear the night before and give you material?)
Inside these Isaiah quotations is something I find really fun and interesting.
2Ne 8:9-10/ Isaiah 51:9-10.
Awake, awake! Put on strength, O arm of the Lord; awake as in the ancient days. Art thou not he that hath cut Rahab, and wounded the dragon? Art thou not he who hath dried the sea, the waters of the great deep; that hath made the depths of the sea a way for the ransomed to pass over?
Who are Rahab and the great dragon, and what does that have to do with the waters of the sea, the great deep, etc.?
Rahab here does not refer to the woman in Joshua 2, who let the Israelite spies into the city. Rather, all the characters here— Rahab, the great dragon, the sea (Heb. yamm), the waters of the great deep (Heb. təhōm)— are synonyms for the same thing. Isaiah invokes one of three distinct Israelite creation myths; Creation had involved a battle between God and “chaos.” God conquered, and thus order, creation, prevailed. However, chaos was not destroyed, only held at bay. Here, think of the Job verse we like to read in isolation:
when the morning stars sang together and all the heavenly beings shouted for joy?… who shut in Sea (Heb. yamm) with doors… when I made the clouds its garment, thick darkness its swaddling band, and prescribed bounds for it, and set bars and doors, and said, ‘Thus far shall you come, and no farther, and here shall your proud waves be stopped’? (Job 38:7-11 NRSV, modified)
In 7:12, Job rhetorically asks God, “Am I the Sea, or the Dragon, that you set a guard over me?” (NRSV. The KJV translators, not having discovered the Ugaritic or Akkadian texts, and thus lacking knowledge of this ancient Near Eastern background, did not know what was going on here. )
At times, this guarded, bounded chaos breaks through, and threatens the divinely assured order.
God had defeated chaos in the far primordial past… but God could do it again in the present, and he would do it again in the future (think Book of Revelation). The Israelites historicized this conflict, so that particular earthly events were seen as chaos breaking through, and reenacting this precreation battle. Egypt and Pharaoh at the Red Sea were an example of this, and Isaiah may be referring to that with the phrase “hath made the depths of the sea a way for the ransomed to pass over.” Jacob, however, may be applying this to the Nephites, since they had crossed the sea, the “great waters.” Note how Nephi links them crossing the sea to the Israelites crossing the Red sea,which may well invoke some of this mythology.
And when my brethren saw that I was about to build a ship, they began to murmur against me, saying: Our brother is a fool, for he thinketh that he can build a ship; yea, and he also thinketh that he can cross these great waters. (1Ne 17:17 BOM)
He replies with
26 Now ye know that Moses was commanded of the Lord to do that great work; and ye know that by his word the waters of the Red Sea were divided hither and thither, and they passed through on dry ground. But ye know that the Egyptians were drown (1Ne 17:26-27 BOM)
The other two creation myths (and if you want to know what *I* mean by that word, which carries so much baggage, see here), are Genesis 1-2:4 and Genesis 2:4 onwards. These three creations are not really consistent with each other, which was not problematic from an ancient perspective. They had no problem with multiple stories or accounts about the same thing, and rarely saw a need to harmonize them (see: four gospels, Samuel vs Chronicles, etc.) The battle with chaos found in Job, Psalms, Isaiah and elsewhere explicitly contradicts Genesis 1, wherein we many of the same characters the “deep”/tehom, the dragon(s)/tannin (translated as “great whales” in Genesis 1), but with no conflict at all, no battle. They are merely creations of God who know their place.
For more on this, these are fantastic books.
- Jon Levenson, Creation and the Persistence of Evil
- Gregory Mobley, The Return of the Chaos Monster, and Other Backstories of the Bible
- John Day, God’s Conflict with the Dragon and the Sea (Also treated in his newer book)
- Batto, Slaying the Dragon
- 2 Ne 10:24- Grace in the Book of Mormon. We tend to read 2 Nephi 25:23 and ignore this passage, even though this one greatly clarifies that one. See my post on grace in general and especially Joe Spencer’s Religious Educator article on grace and 2 Nephi 25:23.
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