Today, like the Titanic and the iceberg, we arrive at the dreaded Isaiah chapters.
Now, one might wonder why Nephi bothers to copy Isaiah like this. After all, they’ve got it already, right? But given how valuable the text of Isaiah is to Nephi, it is a very practical decision for him to make a second (partial) copy, by inscribing it onto his small plates. After all, they only had one copy of the text. Think of it like your computer data; Nephi needed to make a back-up in case something happened.
More explicitly, Nephi has earlier told us why he quotes Isaiah and what he’s doing with it, in 1Ne 19:23;
that I might more fully persuade them to believe in the Lord their Redeemer I did read unto them that which was written by the prophet Isaiah; for I did liken all scriptures unto us, that it might be for our profit and learning
Nephi’s announcement, among other things, tell us that he’s going to give us a non-contextual application of Isaiah to his people. He is re-interpreting and adapting Isaiah to speak to and about his people, making it relevant for them this way. He is not giving us a historical or contextual interpretation of Isaiah, or what Isaiah really meant when he spoke to the eighth-century Israelites two hundred years earlier. When my students have trouble grasping this point, the following dialogue often helps.
Allowing for a little Semitic hyperbole, were ‘all scriptures’ written for or about the Nephites? Was Leviticus written with the Nephites in mind? Psalms? Jeremiah? And yet, Nephi says he likened all of them to his people. That suggests Nephi both recognizes and is announcing to us that he’s applying these passages in a new way that they hadn’t been written for, and that Isaiah’s primary subject and audience in those chapters was not Nephi’s people. Nephi’s prophetic reading is a creative adaptive one.
Before quoting Isaiah, Nephi also invites the reader of the plates to re-reapply them. “Now these are the words [of Isaiah], and ye may liken them unto you and unto all men. (2Ne 11:8) Nephi’s conception of likening clearly envisioned an interpretive flexibility, wherein everyone in all times could see themselves in Isaiah somehow.
Elder McConkie (no milquetoast liberal) approved of this idea, that later interpreters like Nephi and the New Testament authors are re-interpreting, giving new meaning to something. Nephi, he said,
“gave, not a literal, but an inspired and interpreting translation. And in many instances his words give either a new or greatly expanded meaning to the original prophetic word.” (My emphasis, original here.)
We shouldn’t expect Nephi’s understanding of Isaiah to reflect what Isaiah meant to Isaiah’s first hearers in the eighth century BC nor to Jerusalem Israelites contemporary with Nephi. For more on contextual vs. non-contextual intepretation, see my post here on Isaiah 22, my Sperry Symposium talk, and this Church News article quoting BYU Prof Gaye Strathearn on two-fold interpretation.
I think the best single paper on these chapters and Nephi’s interpretation and what it might have meant to the Nephites is by Gee and Roper, LINK; If Laman and Lemuel’s violation of the covenant included marrying non-Israelites, natives in the land… how could Nephi and company do the same? Because they kept the covenant, and Isaiah explains how Gentiles can be brought in and counted as Israelites.
Three more resources that may be useful are
- Visualizing Isaiah, a free pdf from the Maxwell Institute. If you want to see images of people, places, and things that Isaiah mentions, visuals for your class or kids, this is a good resource.
- Isaiah in the Book of Mormon, another free Pdf from the Maxwell Institute of a hardcover volume.
- John Hilton has an article modeling the utility of a good map when teaching Isaiah, since Isaiah refers to so many places and peoples. This information goes directly to understanding Isaiah.
Nephi quotes Isaiah 2-14, so while not a lot of overlap with our Isaiah lessons from last year, here’s my post on Isaiah 1-6.
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