Isaiah 29 and the Book of Mormon
This posting about Isaiah 29 is taken from my exegesis of the Old Testament, the Old Testament being my favorite of the standard works. Isaiah 29 is quoted by Nephi. Not really quoted, though, because he makes emendations that affect the meaning of Isaiah's writings. This posting is about hermeneutics, how Nephi's changes and uses what Isaiah said for his, Nephi's, purposes. Because this is an excerpt from my Old Testament exegesis, it may seem a little disjointed at first. Read on. It will make sense. There is, perhaps, an added benefit to this posting. You get a glimpse into the organizational structure of Isaiah's work, so you can see that Isaiah is not as opaque as it may seem.
The conclusion of this part of Isaiah’s work, Isaiah 24–ch.35, can be parsed for ease of study, but it must be remembered that the chapter divisions are not part of the original work by Isaiah. Isaiah 29 is only part of a conclusion, so it cannot really be separated from the rest of this particular conclusion. Still, there is special importance to this chapter. First, it is at the center of Isaiah’s apocalyptic conclusion of the first half of his work. It is, also, one of the Isaiah scriptures used by Nephi in 2 Nephi 27 as a part of his, Nephi’s, final apocalypse where, again, it appears at the center Nephi’s writing. Finally, this is a popular scripture in the Mormon church because it is seen as a biblical reference to the Book of Mormon. These reasons and more make study of this chapter particularly important.
Because this chapter is part of the conclusion to the first half of Isaiah’s work, it is worth rehearsing the overall theme of the chapters in the first half; declamations about the wickedness of the House of Israel and the nations that burdened them with oppression The theme of the first thirty-five chapters of Isaiah is the warnings against the Jews and other nations. Part of Isaiah’s prophecy is his revelation of what he saw for the future, the ultimate salvation of his people, both Israel and Judah, a salvation Isaiah’s underscores with stylistic repetition. The first five chapters complete a cycle, beginning with the apostate condition of the chosen people and ending with their ultimate gathering in the latter days. There is then an interlude, Isaiah’s call as a prophet recorded in chapter six, a call that describes the condition of the people necessitating Isaiah’s call, before Isaiah returns to this same theme and structure: chapters seven through twelve address the wickedness of the people leading to their destruction in more detail, the concluding chapters of this section returning, again, to the triumph of the last days. There then follows another interlude, of sorts, the burden chapters, chapters that specifically declaim against individual nations. Finally, Isaiah returns in chapters twenty-four through thirty-five to his theme of deserved and disciplining judgment followed by a latter-day salvation.
Throughout this first half, essentially, of his book, Isaiah’s references to the condition of his people can be read at several levels. The easiest reading of Isaiah is literal, using the events of Isaiah’s day to understand the message Isaiah conveyed. There can be no doubt Isaiah intended this meaning to be grasped by the reader, but Isaiah was far more complex. Much of what he wrote is allegorical because he intended the reader to transfer meaning from what was actually read to other circumstances; for example, the description of the demise of the king of Babylon—meaning the king of the Assyrian Empire—and his comparison to Lucifer found in chapter thirteen can be applied to any oppressor at any time, and the sentence pronounced against the wicked nations is, likewise, of broader application. Isaiah, also, intended his writing to teach principles of righteousness, but the teaching in this first half tends to be negative, the things the righteous have done that are wrong. Finally, Isaiah covers within the folds of his writing the message of hope he saw in the future, but this was a message he buried because of the wickedness of his people and the fact that their immediate hope was, on account of their wickedness, so dim. Still, Isaiah saw the future, a future which is our present-day that can be read between the lines of his account.
Ignoring the interludes of Isaiah’s call, chapter six, and the burden chapters, thirteen through twenty-three. Isaiah’s writings repeat references he makes, sometimes repeating them with the same sense and sometimes with a different, nearly opposite meaning. For example, in Isaiah 2 there is a reference in verse six. to soothsayers followed by the reference in verse ten to hiding in the dust and the rocks; these references are then repeated in verse eighteen and twenty-one. In chapter three there is the reference in verse four to children ruling over the people, a description repeated in verse twelve. The walking, mincing and costumed women of chapter three is followed by women seeking after men of righteousness in the latter days at the beginning of chapter four. In chapter five people drink strong drink in the morning, becoming inflamed, and these people have woe pronounced upon them at the end of the chapter, verse twenty et seq. Chapters seven through nine give double meaning to the names of Isaiah’s sons and the child of the newly-married maiden’s son, Immanuel: Shear-jashub is explained in Isaiah 9:1ff, Immanuel in Isaiah 9:6ff and Maher-shala-hash-baz in Isaiah 9:13ff. There is the image of a rod in Isaiah 10:26 that is repeated in Isaiah 11:1. The ensign raised by the gentiles in the latter days, Isaiah 11:10, shall make the chosen people salute the Lord, Isaiah 12:2. Chapter twenty-four pronounces the judgment in verses five through six and again in twenty-one through twenty-three. The image of a city is used in Isaiah 25:1 and repeated in Isaiah 26:1. Dead men are the metaphor in Isaiah 26:14 and Isaiah 26:19, the first reference being a condemnation and the second an exultation. Isaiah turns the taunting of the intelligentsia found in Isaiah 28:10 back upon them in Isaiah 28:13. Chapter twenty-nine has a repetition, too, the book found in verses eleven, twelve, and eighteen, a repetition that is consistent with the other repetitions found in Isaiah’s writings and which is discussed more fully in the next paragraph. Chapter thirty repeats the rebelliousness of the people in verses one and nine, and there is a devouring fire that is repeated, verses twenty-seven and thirty-three. After chapter thirty this type of repetition ceases.
Before turning to a more detailed analysis of Isaiah 29 it is important to make observations about the use of this portion of Isaiah’s writing in the Book of Mormon. Nephi does not quote this scripture; instead and as shown by the side-by-side comparison of Nephi’s and Isaiah’s writing at the end of the following analysis, it is paraphrased as a part of Nephi’s essay/prophecy written at the conclusion of his life, his last lecture or apocalypse, so to speak. Joseph Smith’s translation of the bible adopts, for the most part, the changes made by Nephi, changes that make explicit Isaiah’s, perhaps, cabalistic reference to the Nephite record, but the reasons Joseph Smith made these changes are not known, and, based on the context in Isaiah, a context not preserved in the Book of Mormon, the transplantation of Nephi’s amendments to this chapter into the bible is improper. The position of this scripture in Isaiah’s and Nephi’s writings, the centerpiece of the concluding part of their respective apocalypses, the fact that this scripture was amended so much by Nephi, changes adopted by Joseph Smith in his emendations to the bible, and the centrality of this scripture to the latter-day saint, members of the church turning to this scripture as evidence of the Book of Mormon, demands a focused analysis of it that, unfortunately, to a certain extent, necessarily involves the differences between Nephi’s amendments and use of this scripture and Isaiah’s intent and use. As noted in the introduction to this group of scriptures, however, it is not appropriate to consider this chapter isolated from those with which it was written, the chapter divisions having been added in the 13th century AD to facilitate study, not inhibit it.
Isaiah’s repetition in chapter 29 and the darkness of his warnings against his people is consistent with his style, so understanding his meaning requires the perspective of his method and his purpose. The chapter begins with a warning to Ariel, the city of Jerusalem, a warning omitted from Nephi’s paraphrase because, no doubt, Nephi was not concerned with the wickedness of Jerusalem. Many in the church want the omitted warning, the language about speaking from the dust, to refer to the Book of Mormon, but it does not. Isaiah prophecies of the siege that will be laid against Jerusalem and which will result, ultimately, in its destruction. He tells the people they will be killed and, so their voices will be, as it were, from the grave or dust and nothing more than ghosts of the past. The simile is a literary device with a sarcastic overtone because Isaiah both derides the propensity of his people to seek after familiar spirits, seeking advice from the departed dead through the mediums of necromancers, and minimizes the importance of these wicked Jews by making their voice a whisper from the grave, something of little moment. Of course, the dust of the Jews’ enemies will be of less importance, verse five noting that it will be like chaff that is instantly gone.
The language of the King James Version lends itself to an unintended translation because most Mormon readers do not understand the pejorative meaning of a “familiar spirit,” and, instead, want to give it a positive connotation and juxtapose it to Moroni’s speaking from the dust, Moroni 10:27, to show a fulfillment of what they want to be a prophecy by Isaiah. Isaiah no doubt saw the day of the gentiles and the impact of the Nephi record, but this first part of chapter 29 does not refer to anything other than the happenings in Jerusalem and the destruction awaiting the wicked there. Modern translations make a connection with the Book of Mormon more difficult to find. The New Revised Standard Version translates these verses:
The Jerusalem Bible translation, also, makes a reference to our modern-day unlikely.
The New International Version is the same:
The fact that following Isaiah’s prophecy against Jerusalem, verses one through four, there is a prophecy against those who will lay siege to Jerusalem, verses five through eight, militates against this reference to speaking from the dust as a prophecy of the Book of Mormon. It would make no sense for Isaiah to continue his dust simile against the Assyrians, Babylonians and other nations fighting against Israel. Isaiah’s clear intent, here, is to refer to the death awaiting both his people and those fighting against his people.
There is a difference between the house of Jacob and the gentiles, though, because the descendants of Abraham will still speak from the dust while the destruction and death of the gentile nations will leave them like dust in the wind, chaff scattered by the wind. There is significant imagery to be drawn here because Isaiah says his people, who found it acceptable to talk with the departed dead through wizards, would find themselves as the departed dead speaking from the dust, so this is a double attack on his people. Isaiah uses the same imagery to underscore the insignificance of those who will fight against Jerusalem or mount Zion, but he does not deride them for consulting wizards.
Since the first eight verses refer to the judgments to be visited upon Jerusalem and those fighting against it, there is no wonder Nephi omits it from his record. It would not be apropos of anything to his people nor to his vision of what would happen in the latter days. Indeed, the word Ariel used in Isaiah 29:1–2 in the King James Version is complicated. Ariel sounds like the Hebrew word used in Ezekiel 43:15 which is translated as altar hearth in the NIV and NRSV; indeed, the last use of the term in verse 29:2 is translated altar hearth in the NIV, and the NRSV, as well because Ariel is a homophone for the actual place for the sacrifice described by Ezekiel. This paronomasia here in Isaiah has a metaphorical meaning: the very temple mount will serve as the place for the sacrifice of the wicked in Jerusalem. Nephi had no interested in this condemnation of the inhabitants of Jerusalem.
Verses 8 through 24, however, are a different matter. Nephi takes great liberty with these verses, adding substantially to them, additions that make a reference to the Book of Mormon irrefragable, and what Nephi does is more than merely making plain the complexities inherent in Jewish writing and Isaiah’s prophecies: he sorts the material unique to the Jews from the presentation he gives and adds new material that changes the meaning so that the scripture is, using Nephi’s word, “likened” to his people and their circumstance.
The book described twice in chapter 29 is an example of the work done by Nephi. The book is a figure of speech with double meaning. Nephi was not interested keeping any meaning buried cabbalistically in Isaiah’s writing, so he cuts to the chase, but in doing so he amended the writings of Isaiah, removing the references unique to the Jews. Isaiah’s first reference to a book, verses 11 and 12, is a castigation of the leaders of the people who had so deadened themselves to the things of the spirit they did not apprehend the things of the Lord; the unlearned, meaning those in Jerusalem who were unable to read, are also condemned for excusing themselves from knowing these things.
The translation in the King James Version of the first reference to a book is somewhat misleading when read by Mormons sensitized to the interaction between Martin Harris and Charles Anthon. Mormons want to infuse the meaning clearly intended by Nephi’s amendments where it does not exist in Isaiah’s writing; Isaiah was using another simile to attack the apostasy of his people. Different translations militate against construing these verses as a prophecy of Professor Anthon’s reaction to the characters presented to him by Harris.
The translation in the Jerusalem Bible is, similarly, instructive:
Likewise, the NIV helps one understand what this verse says:
These alternative translations do more justice to this scripture than the King James Version. Isaiah has just castigated the people in Jerusalem because of their insensitivity to the things of the spirit. His use of the book simile underscores what he has just said: the people excuse themselves from understanding the things of the Lord because the word of the Lord is either sealed or they cannot read it, neither excuse being justification.
Of course, it is understandable that an illiterate cannot read the book, but the sealed book causes some to wonder because there are not many examples today of sealed documents. At the time of Isaiah’s writing, however, sealed documents were common. For example, Jeremiah 32:10–12 (NIV) contains the following language:
As can be readily inferred from this scripture, the common practice during Jeremiah’s and Isaiah’s time was to have two copies of an official document, one that was sealed and another for ready reference. The copy, however, was subject to mischief or loss, so its authenticity was guaranteed by the sealed copy. However, the seal on the sealed copy could not be broken at just anytime by just anyone because it, too, would then be subject to damage or modification, so it could only be opened in front of witnesses or other formalities to assure that no tampering occurred; in other words, the sealed document could not be read, and the educated person would know that one just did not read sealed documents. It was the unsealed document one read.
Isaiah’s reference to the sealed book may be a reference to the prophecies he wrote and sealed before witnesses during the reign of King Ahaz, Isaiah 8:1–2, or it may be just a sarcastic attack on people who are not reading the scriptures nor applying them in their lives. Isaiah warns the people in chapter 34 that his prophecies shall all be fulfilled, referring to them as the “book of the Lord.”
Of course, the people of Isaiah’s day were generally oblivious to the warnings pronounced by Isaiah, warnings that were either unreadable because they could not read or sealed so they did not understand them; after all, a document that was officially sealed really could not be read and, therefore, could not be understood, the unsealed version being the copy available for perusal. In other words, Isaiah is playing on the refusal of the literate to understand the scriptures at several levels. The scriptures, while not sealed with wax and ribbon, were especially revered, and the leaders tended to consult tradition and other copies of the scriptures. At another level, though, the scriptures were sealed in the sense of their cabalistic meaning, so the seal is a metaphor for the encrypted message or the message overlooked as the literate wrested the scriptures.
Notably and as shown by the parallel comparison of the analogue to this chapter found in 2 Nephi 27, verses 11 and 12 are omitted from Nephi’s record, but the book simile returns in verses 17 and 18 where the reference connotes something more than the refusal of the Jews to understand and abide by the precepts of the gospel. The book is used this second instance in connection with the time when Lebanon becomes a fruitful field, Isaiah’s denotation of the latter days, and is part of the reason, as verse 24 says, “They . . . that erred in spirit shall come to understanding, and they that murmured shall learn doctrine.” There are, thus, two readings to be given this scripture as it stands in the Old Testament, one recognizing the book as a mere figure of speech and the other as an adumbration of the Book of Mormon. Isaiah may have intended this double meaning because of both the significance of the Book of Mormon in the latter days, a significance he had seen in vision, and because it is consistent with Isaiah’s style to add dimension to his devices the second time they are used. Another significant observation about the “sealed book” imagery of this chapter is worth making. Because this chapter does not stand alone, the chapter division being artificial, it is noteworthy that Isaiah’s reference to books is not isolated to this chapter. He returns to this metaphor in 34:16 and 35:5, usages that make it clear the sealing of these books is self-imposed on account of the wickedness of the people.
The fact that Isaiah returned to the book simile in later chapters certainly ties this chapter with those stylistically, but this does not militate against the anagogic reference in this chapter to the Book of Mormon because Isaiah had penchant for adding meaning to metaphors when used in close proximity. Examples of this device can seen in the preceding two chapters where Isaiah turns sarcastic deprecations, like his first reference to a book, to exultations, like his second reference. In chapter 28 Isaiah turns the ridicule against the truth done by the drunken priests and prophets, whom Isaiah characterizes as “scornful men, that rule . . . Jerusalem,” 28:14, and whose mocking babble is mimicked in verse 28:10, to an explanation of the patience and long-suffering of the Lord in the face of recalcitrant followers, 28:11–13. In chapter 27 Isaiah turns the death of the worldly kings who had dominated the Jews, 27:14, into a hope of the resurrection, 27:19. Consistently, the second reference to a book in chapter 29 carries with it a positive meaning, but it is a meaning buried from the view of the Jews because the thought of their salvation coming from the isles of the sea, from somewhere outside of Jerusalem, would be anathema to them, something to be kept for only the most attuned. In other words, the reference to a sealed book is consistent with Isaiah’s stylistic twist or peripeteia that turns a negative reference to a positive which is intentionally encrypted and, therefore, difficult to apprehend. There can be no doubt, however, that no one during Isaiah’s time would have supposed this chapter contained a reference to the Book of Mormon of the latter days. There was simply no way for the Isaiah’s contemporaries to glean this from the writing.
Nephi, however, had a different frame of reference. He, certainly, understood any encryption in this chapter because he had seen the same visions as Isaiah, so his emendations and amendments both change and clarify the text. He changed the scripture to eliminate the sarcastic reference to those who could but would not read; in fact, he made this reference to the learned a true reference to a learned man, meaning someone more than merely literate, because he wanted the prophecy of the Professor Anthon transaction explicit. Furthermore and consistent with the style he used in the Book of Mormon, his final work is chiastic in format, something Joseph Smith would not have been able to do, so this scripture in the Book of Mormon becomes Nephi’s, not Isaiah’s. It is, also, clear that Nephi uses the term sealed to refer to the sealed portion of the plates, not a wax and ribbon seal that assures the authenticity of the book or document.
Because a major portion of Nephi’s version of this scripture is chiastic, it is helpful to consider its format before comparing it to the version found in the Old Testament. An abbreviated form of the chiasmus is shown in the accompanying text box. This chiasmus is taken from 2 Nephi 27:12–24; it, along with 2 Nephi 27:6–10, constitutes an insertion into the middle of Isaiah’s words, verses 6 through 10 being an introduction of what follows in the formal chiasmus. The chiasmus and its introduction are sandwiched between Nephi’s warnings against those in the latter days who will fight against the righteous. Nephi’s sandwich parallels what Isaiah did, but is not the same: Isaiah’s book simile is sandwiched between the woe he pronounces against the city of Jerusalem and its inhabitants at the beginning of the chapter and his declaration at the end that the meek and the poor shall rejoice in the Lord at the latter day while the scorners and the wicked will be cut off. In other words, Nephi’s sandwich deals with nothing but the latter days, while Isaiah’s starts with Jerusalem during his day and ends with a general statement about the latter days.
The material replaced by Nephi’s chiasmus is, as already noted, related to Isaiah’s writings, but omits the references to the conditions at Jerusalem, the refusal of the leaders and the common people to understand the word of the Lord. Nephi’s expansion on the meaning hidden in Isaiah’s second reference to the book is what was important to Nephi. In addition, Nephi emphasized by his format and the number of repetitions he employed the following points. First, the reaction of the learned, meaning more than the merely literate, is very important, it receiving the most emphasis by virtue of both the number of repetitions and being at the turning point of the chiasmus. The fact that there are sealed portions of this record is important as are the witnesses and delivery of this marvelous work to the children of men.
Because it is the learned who receive the most emphasis in this chiasmus, it is appropriate to draw some distinctions between the different groups of learned described by Nephi. Certainly, the Professor Anthon transaction should be associated with the singular remarks about the learned, but these occur only until the turning point. After the turning point the references to the learned are plural, not singular, so the reference goes from a particular learned man to the unlearned to whom the book is delivered, Joseph Smith, and, then, the reference returns to the learned, but this time the reference is to the learned, generally. These references have direct parallels in today’s world. Scholars tend to reject the Book of Mormon out of hand because of a variety of threshold issues that affect the scholars view of the work. First, unlike most books respected by scholars, there is no authentication regarding the discovery of this book. It was not found by scholars during an archeological dig, so the skepticism of the scholar discounts the credibility of the book. Second, this book does not purport to be a translation in the sense of scholarly translations; it is not as though someone discovered a Rosetta Stone that enabled scholars to unlock the mysteries of the language. Third, the plates are not available for review by scholars, so no carbon dating or secondary review is possible. This, truly, is a book that does not meet the standards for acceptance by the scholarly community, but this reality, in the words of the prophets, only underscores the folly of their methodology because “the wisdom of their wise men shall perish and the understanding of their prudent men shall be hid.” The marvelous work that attends this book is not the result of a methodical, scientific analysis; rather, the wonder of this book for the children of men is its discovery and translation by the unlearned, a fact that shows the power of Christ and makes it a marvelous work and a wonder. The Lord gives the children of men the witness of the book and witnesses who saw the plates, but the miracle of the production of this book is preserved.
The problem any skeptic will have with the book, assuming he can look beyond the threshold blockades to analysis, is the internal wonder of the book and improbability that one so unlearned, Joseph Smith, could produce it. The changes to this chapter of Isaiah in 2 Nephi 27 is an example. If Joseph Smith were fabricating a story it is unlikely he would pick a well-known chapter from Isaiah to change radically and then insert in his work. Furthermore, the likelihood that Joseph Smith would adeptly change the reading of the chapter to make it a complex chiasmus which explicates an oblique reference by Isaiah to the Book of Mormon is de minimus.
Nephi’s explanation of Isaiah’s writings becomes very plain because of what Nephi did after his emendation. After his chiastic insertion, Nephi returned to Isaiah’s text, text that contains the reference to the Book of Mormon Nephi explained with his insertions. Understanding from Nephi the meaning of this scripture makes its reading simple. Isaiah addresses the conditions in the latter days, conditions that Isaiah could see would be very much like the circumstance of the people in Jerusalem: people drawing near to the Lord with their lips by not acting the part. Isaiah 29:17 is the key to understanding Isaiah’s transition from the conditions at Jerusalem during his day to the latter days because Lebanon and the fruitful field are the metaphors Isaiah uses to identify what will happen in the latter days. Isaiah transitions from the conditions of Jerusalem during his era, when people would not read the book of the Lord, to the time in the latter days when a book, the Book of Mormon, would enable the honest in heart to obtain the truth. Ultimately, this book will result, verses 22 through 24, in the redemption of Israel, meaning the house of Jacob, in the latter days. In fact, what Isaiah and Nephi both do is very much the same. They are both writing apocalyptically. They both consider the condition of their own people, observing they will be destroyed on account of their wickedness. Both address the glory of the latter days when the righteous will prevail. Finally and most important for this chapter of Isaiah’s writings and 2 Nephi 27, both writers make the centerpiece of their apocalypse the Book of Mormon.