Thanks for letting us take the final posting, though to be honest, we only volunteered because we thought this would be an easy week. How much is there is say about ten verses of direct quotation? But perhaps we were wrong. It may be a bit like the Borges story of Pierre Menard (a fiction that George knows well). Nephi comes up with words that are virtually identical to Isaiah’s (at least in the KJV), but because he has placed them in a very different context, the meaning has been transformed.
At first glance, vv. 27-35 seem like an odd interruption; what happened to all the talk of the future sealed book and its readers? Or the sins of latter-day Gentiles? Are we back in the political controversies of the 8th century, with Isaiah warning of the dangers of entangling military alliances? Given both the presumed difficulty of engraving upon the plates and Nephi’s self-consciously intentional writing in the 2 Ne. 25-30 segment (cf. 25:1-8), the real question for readers here seems to be why Nephi includes the passage at all.
Perhaps the best way to attempt a response to this question is to follow a systematic strategy for reading Nephi reading Isaiah. Our first step is to identify any glosses added by Nephi. In addition to a few grammatical shifts, he offers the following (minimal) interjections:
v. 27 – “But behold, I will show unto them,” saith the Lord of Hosts, “that I know all their works” (in response to the wicked whose “works are in the dark,” who ask “who knoweth us?”)
v. 28 – “But behold,” saith the Lord of Hosts, “I will show unto the children of men that . . .”
v. 31 – “For assuredly as the Lord liveth they shall see that . . .”
What these all seem to have in common is an insistence that the Lord is actively demonstrating something that will come as a surprise to many, perhaps especially to those who are proud, stubborn, and disregard the poor (i.e., the latter-day Gentiles of 2 Ne. 26-28, in the context provided by Nephi).
Next, we can take note of the immediate context. The fact that the two primary themes from 26:20-27:19—of the latter-day Gentiles and the sealed book—are again picked up in chapter 28 immediately following Nephi’s quotation of Isaiah 29:15-24 may suggest that Nephi thinks there is a closer thematic connection than first meets the eye.
Thirdly, we can identify verbal connections between the Isaiah 29 verses and Nephi’s interpretive comments that both precede and follow the inserted quotation. For example, the “wo” statement which begins vs. 27 will be extended in the list of woes at 28:24-29 (and at 28:24-29 Nephi appears to be connecting both of these to Jacob’s teachings as well as to Isaiah’s earlier prophecies: the list of woes there is reminiscent of Jacob’s wo pronouncements at 2 Ne. 9:28-38 as well as of Isaiah’s own at 2 Ne. 15: 8-23. This, of course, is in accordance with the “three witnesses” strategy that runs throughout 2 Ne. 25-30, which was explicitly introduced at 2 Ne. 11:1-3). Similarly, those that “seek deep to hide their counsels from the Lord” in v. 27 are explicitly identified by Nephi as latter-day Gentiles in 28:9; and the “works . . . in the dark” (also of v. 27) echo the “works of darkness” mentioned at 26:10, 22 (cf. v. 23), which are again explicitly identified at 28:9. According to v. 30, “the meek also shall increase . . . and the poor among men shall rejoice in the Holy One of Israel,” even though they come in for rough treatment at the hands of the Gentiles at 26:20 and 28:11-14. Those that “turn aside the just for a thing of naught” at v. 32 are noted by Nephi in 28:16; and the promise that “they that erred in spirit shall come to understanding” (v. 35) echoes Nephi’s earlier assertion at 25:7 that because of the plainness of his own prophecies “no man can err.” Likewise, the follow-up statement in v. 35 that “they that murmured shall learn doctrine” (v. 35), contrasts with the false doctrines and “precepts of men” described at 26:20, 29; 27:25; 28:3-11, 14-15, 26.
Our fourth move might be to identify recurrent themes within the passage itself. Again and again in vv. 27-35 we see reversals: the cedars of Lebanon will become a field (according to the Anchor Bible, this environmental change is indicative of eschatological reordering, in line with the prophesied visitation of the Lord of Hosts in Isa. 29:6//2 Ne. 27:2); on a human scale, the deaf will hear, the blind will see, the meek will increase, and the poor will rejoice, the “terrible one is brought to naught, and the scorner is consumed.” Jacob (the House of Israel), who was once ashamed, will praise God when he sees his posterity and God’s work among them. And finally, those “that erred in spirit shall come to understanding, and they that murmured shall learn [true] doctrine.” These radical reversals will seem unbelievable to many, who will assume that they cannot last, even as they take place before their eyes: “And they also say, ‘Surely, your turning of things upside down shall be esteemed as the potter’s clay.’” (Note that Nephi adds the introductory phrase “and they also say,” indicating that these will be complaints that come from those whose works are in the dark. In Isaiah, it is not clear who is saying this.)
Finally, we are ready to look for something that might pull all of these observations together. At this level of analysis, things will be more debatable, so let us be very clear about our hermeneutical presuppositions. Rather than seeing Nephi as haphazardly throwing things together at random, we assume that he was a careful, conscientious author who had a coherent message in mind. We consider our task as interpreters as trying to recover his intentions (while acknowledging the difficulties and unavoidable limitations of that process), as opposed to using his words as a springboard for our own creative insights or practical applications.
With all this in mind, it seems possible to us that Nephi here is using the words of Isaiah to continue his discussion of the relation between the latter-day Gentiles and the sealed book—at least part of which will become the future Book of Mormon. Verse 27, which speaks of some confusion in distinguishing the producer from the product is the first key: “For shall the work say of him that made it, ‘He made me not’? Or shall the thing framed say of him that framed it, ‘He hath no understanding’?” To most outsiders, the Book of Mormon—with its theological anachronisms, awkward diction, and lengthy quotations from the King James Bible—screams out, I was not made by an ancient prophet named Mormon (or perhaps, I am not the word/work of God). The evidence of forgery is so obvious that it hardly merits discussion. At the same time, it does not seem on cursory review to be an especially impressive piece of work; the text itself, they assume, stands as a witness that Joseph Smith had very little in the way of understanding. But if Nephi intended v. 27 as a reference to the Book of Mormon, then this dismissive attribution will actually represent a “turning of things upside down” (v. 27), and the rest of the passage falls into place.
Nephi’s gloss in the middle of the verse (“‘But behold, I will show unto them,’ saith the Lord of Hosts, ‘that I know all their works’”) reflects the fact that the Book of Mormon itself, in 2 Ne. 26-28, demonstrates that God knows exactly what the faithless Gentiles of the last days are up to. He knows all about their “works in the dark,” which they try to cloak with religion. This “I will show” insert (repeated in vs. 28 as “I will show unto the children of men . . . ”) may also be echoing the Lord’s earlier statement at 27:21 “I will show unto the children of men that I am able to do mine own work,” thereby identifying who the “potter” or “framer” of the sealed book truly is.
The future change by which “the deaf hear the words of the book” (v. 29) is not just one reversal among many, but is a specific reference back to the sealed book of 27:6-23, which is the same book Nephi speaks of as soon as he ends his quotation of Isaiah: “The things which shall be written out of the book shall be of great worth unto the children of men, and especially unto our seed” (2 Ne. 28:2, with a connection to 2 Ne. 3 [a critical chapter on the future Book of Mormon] – “which shall be of great worth unto them, even to the bringing of them to the knowledge of the covenants which I have made with thy fathers” [2 Ne. 3:7].) This book will itself be the cause of the reversals which follow: the [spiritually] blind will see, the oppressed will find joy, the scoffers and critics (who seize upon minutia) will come to nothing. Those that err will come to understanding (cf. 25:7). In the end, again because of the Book of Mormon, the descendants of Israel (including the Lamanites), will recover their dignity and return to the correct worship of God, and many who have gone astray will find the truth.
We like this reading because it gives coherence to Nephi’s writing: he talks of a future book right before the lengthy quote at 27:24-35, and then he speaks about the same book right after he ends the quote (28:1-2). It makes sense that he is reading the Isaiah passage as focusing on the same topic. (We wish, however, that he had used the New English Bible, which takes the phrase “the work of my hand” in Isa. 29:23 as referring not to Israel’s posterity, but rather to a separate work of God, which might be interpreted as the Book of Mormon: “for his descendants will hallow my name when they see what I have done in their nation.”) Still, one might legitimately wonder whether this interpretation is ultimately correct or not. Is it really what Nephi had in mind, and if so, how would we know?
Final proof is very rare in hermeneutics. Most often plausibility is measured by utility: is this helpful? does it make sense of most of the data? are there obvious gaps or exceptions? But sometimes corroborating evidence presents itself. As mentioned above, one particular phrase from 2 Ne. 27:27-35, “and turn aside the just for a thing of naught,” shows up again in the next chapter: “Wo unto them that turn aside the just for a thing of naught, and revile against that which is good, and say, ‘That is of no worth!’” (28:16). As quoted here, the passage echoes both the phrase from Isa. 29 and also Nephi’s description earlier in the chapter (v. 2) that “the things which shall be written out of the [sealed] book shall be of great worth unto the children of men,” (Throughout Nephi’s writings, mention of things having “worth” is usually a reference to Joseph’s prophecy at 2 Ne. 3:7. ) When Nephi writes of “reviling against that which is good,” he is clearly speaking of the wise, learned, and rich (28:15) who will reject the Book of Mormon. So when he equates that action with “turning aside the just for a thing of naught,” it appears that he was reading “the just” in 27:32 as a code-word for the Book of Mormon (or perhaps for its authors, its translator, or its believers). Or in other words—combining Nephi’s recontextualization with the phrasing of the NIV—skeptical latter-day Gentiles who reject the Book of Mormon are like those who “with false testimony deprive the innocent of justice.”
Needless to say, this reading has made us quite impressed with Nephi’s rhetorical dexterity—we’d be interested in your comments: are we overreaching?