While going through commentaries on Isaiah, I happened upon a fantastic little book called Reading Isaiah, written by Edgar Conrad. In this little book, Conrad both (1) develops a theory of how to read Isaiah (or all scripture) and (2) develops an actual reading of Isaiah (specifically).
His book bears on our reading of Isaiah 29 and on our reading of Isaiah 29 in Second Nephi in at least two ways: (1) it does a remarkable job of situating Isaiah 29 within the larger text of the Book of Isaiah, and (2) it develops what I would refer to as a materialist theory of reading scripture (I here use materialist in what might be called a “Parley. P. Pratt sense”), one that I think can be fleshed out and perhaps revised by a careful reading of the Book of Isaiah itself.
As regards the first of these two points, Conrad works up a reading of Isaiah that I would adjust just slightly to look like this: the written vision of Isaiah, made up of Isaiah 6-39, is literarily set within a kind of written exposition, made up of Isaiah 2-5 and 40-55. (I think Isaiah 1 and 56-66–that is, what historical critics have long called Third Isaiah–can be profitably separated off from this structure. Conrad, it should be noted, disagrees: he ignores historical-critical questions entirely, focusing rather on the literary text regardless of its historical development. I have my own reasons, though, for taking seriously the post-exilic setting of Third Isaiah, something I’ll have to explain elsewhere.) Isaiah 29 is an important anchoring point for this structural reading of Isaiah (of First and Second Isaiah): it is in Isaiah 29:11-12 that one finds what might be taken as a description of the commission of “the vision of all this” to a written text, a sealed book.
The emphasis Isaiah 29 lays on the transition from vision to text is in fact part of a larger thematic development: Isaiah 28 is more or less obsessed with the question of the oral/aural, and Isaiah 30 follows Isaiah 29’s interest in the written/visual. In this regard, this three-chapter stretch (Isaiah 28-30) is closely related to the beginning of Isaiah’s “vision,” Isaiah 6-8. There one finds a similar shift from vision and preaching to the written text, and–just as in Isaiah 28-30–precisely because the people of Isaiah’s own day reject the prophetic message.
The present-rejection-leading-to-future-oriented-inscription theme that ties Isaiah 6-8 to Isaiah 28-30 is vital to Conrad’s structural separation between Isaiah 6-39 and Isaiah 2-5, 40-55: the written exposition of the latter chapters is the readerly response to the inscription that is the former chapters.
On Conrad’s reading–emended in important ways–the Book of Isaiah can be taken as embodying a kind of theory of reading: it thematizes the commission of the preached vision to written, textual format (in Isaiah 6-39), and then it thematizes the readerly response to that written text (in Isaiah 2-5, 40-55). (Conrad goes so far as to suggest that the “Cry!” and “What shall I cry?” business in Isaiah 40 should be retranslated–the Hebrew could be understood either way–as “Read!” and “What shall I read?”)
The whole of Isaiah 2-55 (within which boundaries every word of Isaiah to be found in the Book of Mormon falls) might thus be understood as a kind of textual embodiment of a theory of reading: the provenance and nature of the text is explored, as well as the implications of textuality for the work of readerly reception.
This brings one to the “materialist” theory of reading scripture (or of reading Isaiah). Conrad suggests that the reader constructed by the text of Isaiah differs in important ways from two different historical-critical methodologies (psychological interest in authorial intention, on the one hand, and sociological interest in redactional interplay, on the other hand) and from the longstanding fundamentalist tradition. Each of these ways of reading a text might be said, in one way or another, to be immaterialist: the historical critics ignore the materiality of the text in their search for the immaterial dead, and the fundamentalist ignores the material text in his or her dogmatic adherence to an immaterial tradition.
Isaiah himself speaks, both in Isaiah 8 and Isaiah 29, of those who refuse the text because they seek after “the dead” or after a “familiar spirit” (a word that has reference, of course, to occult practices): to read the scriptures in a non-materialist way is essentially to make them part of a kind of seance.
Thus, building on Conrad by turning to Isaiah himself, it is possible to sketch out what might be called four ways of reading a text: the psychological historical approach, the sociological historical approach, the fundamentalist approach, and the materialist approach. Each of these deserves more attention, I think, and I’ll have to get back to fleshing these out a bit more as soon as I can… especially trying to draw a bit more directly on Isaiah 29!
Anyway, I hope that starts (and doesn’t stop!) conversation…
I like your ideas a lot here and sense that I need to read Conrad, since much of what you rehearse here coincides with some of my own thinking about Isaiah.
I want to make a tangentially related observation, based on my reading of some of the verses of 2 N 29. I think what I want to say is related to reading, but I think I will have to develop that idea later on. For now, what I want to point out is that the essence of this chapter and the Book of Mormon itself is the spirit of grafting as opposed to the notion of an exclusive or fundamentalist ownership of the truth. The Gentiles in verse 5 are chastised for hating the Jews, despite the spiritual benefit derived from them. He says: “ye have cursed them, and have hated them, and HAVE NOT SOUGHT TO RECOVER THEM.” This last phrase strikes me as profoundly important. The Gentiles are tempted to read the words of God as about themselves, as a source of distinction and division between one nation and another, one culture and another, one people and another. That is not that hard to understand. After all the Jews had rejected the very story upon which the Gentiles’s faith was based. The Gentiles believed they alone had rescued the story of Christ from a bad reading.
Is this really so unfair to criticize the Gentiles for their superior reading? Well, it seems the point is to not make too much of the “right” reading. A spirit of division that insists on the centrality of correct readings correlates directly to the attitude of sufficiency: “we have got a Bible!” To believe in the continuing revelations of God is to remain radically open to the influences and equal significance of all people, all cultures; it is to acknowledge the incompleteness of one’s reading. To seek to “recover” other cultures seems to be a profoundly inclusive gesture, independent of how different another culture might be. It is to disavow ownership of the gospel and to recognize the cultural limitations in our apprehension of the word. It is to recognize dependence on correction, multiplicity, and alterity.
This is no mere intellectual exercise since Nephi makes it clear that we will not have a fuller record of the restored gospel until we learn to bring our cultures together in some concrete way. See verse 8, where he says “and when the two nations shall run together the testimony of the two nations shall run together also.” This would seem to imply that we won’t understand a fuller restoration of the gospel until we practice a more inclusive culture, until we actually learn to live with one another. As a comparative Americanist with a particular interest in interracial relations, I find this fascinating. It doesn’t necessarily mean cohabitation, of course, but it implies that a meaningful dialogue of culture and lifeways between people must come first before we can begin to imagine and have revealed to us just how different people belong to the design of God. It is too easy to be lazy in our theorizations about what role other cultures, races, and peoples play in the plan of God (or to ignore the question altogether). We know so very little, since we are so very small. I wonder if there isn’t some deeply profound meaning in Richard Bushman’s idea in On the Road With Joseph Smith where he says that maybe we need to rethink our role in the world. We might do better learning to be of service, learning to be the leaven, instead of only looking at people who we assume either need to join us or get out of the way.
This idea connects to the theories of reading you highlight in the sense that it requires a kind of admission of contingency on the part of the reader–my culture, my nation, my language are contingent and I might stand a chance of transcending my circumstance if I can at least learn to listen and recover stories of others, so that all people’s stories have a chance of recovering from oblivion.
I like what you are saying here, though I would add this caveat, at least in terms of Isaiah and Nephi: it is entirely a question of texts and reading. That is, there is an emphatic preference here for the written word over the spoken.
(On this point, by the way, I highly recommend a little piece by Richard Bushman: “The Book of Mormon in Early Mormon History,” in Richard Bushman, Believing History, pp. 65-78.)
Why is it that reading a text that, so to speak, precipitates out of another culture is so much more unifying than having, say, political discussions? What is it about the material word that makes this happen?
I’ve been working up a comparative reading of Isaiah 29 and the Book of Job that I’ll try to outline here in the next couple of days that attempts to address this kind of a question. I wonder if that won’t help us to come at this question.
I think I disagree (or else I don’t understand our meaning completely). I don’t think that these verses are implying that “running together” is merely a textual experience since the phrase is used twice, the second time to describe a textual phenomenon but the first to describe something else that would suggest sociality of some kind. And I don’t agree that reading and interpretation of the written word is a phenomenon of such special status that we can separate it from how we interpret the world, the spoken word, or other forms of representation. I don’t mean to make an argument against literature or scripture’s special status, but I am wary of arguments that would purport to claim the written word or even the word of God in particular is entirely separable from our historical contexts. D&C section 1 seems to make that point pretty clear: God speaks in our language, according to our understanding. But maybe I am not getting what you are driving at.
My point is simply that it would seem much more difficult for, say, Gentiles to see how integral the Jews are to God’s plan if they live in hostility toward Jews. If they lived in greater harmony and integration, it would seem more likely that the ways in which God has spoken to Jews and Gentiles alike become more comprehensible to both parties.
This text is particularly complicated because there are 3 prophets from different times and cultures all interacting in a single text. That alone suggests that it is more of an integration than separation, but just how we are supposed to deal with the relationship of those parts seems to be the question you’re addressing.
i don’t understand why your approaches are mutually exclusive, rather that we just need to acknowledge which one any given interpretation is using. (I. e. when we’re dividing the text from different perspectives and when we’re approaching it as a whole.) I see the text as separating and unifying at the same time and so both types of interpretation are valid without being exclusive.
George’s comment about the attitude “we have got a bible” suggests that it is not so much the attitude that “we have our own texts, don’t mess with them,” but even more that “we have our own interpretation, don’t mess with that.” Both Jews and gentiles share a text, but neither gives credit to the other’s interpretation. In fact I think one of the reasons we don’t get enough out of the BOM is that we don’t take the Old Testament seriously enough. And we don’t even try to understand the Old Testament even though one reason the BOM was given was so that we would believe (and understand) the OT (Mormon 7:9).
It seems to me that the text is supposed to force us to deal with our past (at least the way God interacts with a people whose scripture we’ve inherited) as well as separate us from that people by showing how we are a different people, but one who are keepers of the same covenant (Mormon 5:10-11). In fact I think that tension of how to use the text is represented in Nephi’s writings. He says that you have to understand the manner of prophesying among the Jews in order to understand Isaiah (which we’re told to do by Nephi, Christ, and Moroni), but Nephi himself did not teach his people about the manner of prophesying among the Jews because of the problems it could create in integrating both the good and the bad from that culture.
That tension to me suggests that what we are told and expected to do (integrate the differences) is difficult and dangerous making separation also necessary. The trick (and difficulty and need for being guided by the spirit) is to know when which is the right choice.
I think I agree with Julie: I don’t see a mutual exclusivity between what I’m saying and what George is saying. I probably shouldn’t have said “preference” in my comment #3; what I mean to suggest is that, in both Nephi and Isaiah, I see everything non-textual being rooted in or at least closely tied to reading texts.
I’ll have to articulate this more in detail when I have the opportunity (something I don’t have this morning: I’ve got to get off to choir practice!), let me at least outline thoughts on this point (my apologies to everyone that I’m waxing so philosophical so early in our discussions: I promise I’ll get away from such “abstractions” and on to the text sometime this week!).
I see an enormous difference obtaining between hospitality and love, between ethics and love, between tolerance and love, etc. While hospitality, ethics, tolerance, and the like are possible only through an emphatic affirmation of differences (differences organized and secured by some obscure transcendent power), love is always guided by an essential indifference to differences, or at least to the differences that order the world as it is. And if that is so, there must be something (and for me: something material) that allows the parties in question to be distracted from the differences that make up the system of the present (fallen) order of the things. What I am suggesting is that that something is a text, an idea I’m taking from Nephi and Isaiah. Zion can’t be built by two reified nationalist groups tolerating each other (hospitality cannot be too separated from hostility, as Jacques Derrida points out), but by the very real differences that establish those two nations as two be distracted by their joint commitment to a text.
Something like that, anyway. But like I say, I’ve only outlined it here.
(Heather and I will just speak with one voice, if that’s okay. If our opinions diverge, we’ll let you know.)
I’m afraid that I feel a bit out of place in this discussion; the philosophical distinctions, sociological implications, and interpretive meta-readings are intriguing, but I am always more comfortable starting with the text itself, set in its historical context. In this respect, the book of Isaiah presents considerable difficulties since the history of the text before the second century BC (the time of the Dead Sea Scrolls and the Septuagint) is anything but clear. Since I myself am not an expert, I tend to defer to the opinions of those who actually know what they are talking about. Though a wide range of interpretations can be found among biblical scholars, there is nevertheless a general consensus that we are dealing with a text that has three major parts that were written, edited, revised, and augmented over the course of several centuries.
For anything biblical, I like to start with the New Oxford Annotated Bible, 3rd ed., whose introductory essays and annotations are a marvel of clarity and synthesis (the NRSV is a terrific translation as well). For Isaiah, the next stop is Joseph Blenkinsopp’s three volume commentary for the Anchor Bible. Even for those without much Hebrew, Blenkinsopp’s notes can provide some idea of the variants and ambiguities in text. As an example of how this type of scholarship might affect our interpretations, it seems significant that Isa. 29:11-12, which has already been highlighted in our discussion, is in prose whereas the rest of the chapter is in poetry. Those two verses appear to be a later interpolation that addresses contemporary concerns of whoever added them. So I would start by attempting to follow, as best I could, the ideas and arguments in Isaiah 29 (usually read in conjunction with chaps. 28-33), with due respect to the possibility of editorial revisions. The immediate issue for Isaiah seems to be the alliance of Judah with Egypt in the revolt against Assyria during the reign of Hezekiah, and in particular the thwarted attack on Jerusalem in 701 BC (all of which would have been old history to Nephi a century later).
To understand Nephi as a reader and editor, we need to approach his writings in two different ways. The first is to try to ascertain, as much as possible, what Isaiah meant in his original context, what the text might have looked like when Nephi acquired a copy about 600 BC, and then how Nephi would have interpreted these prophecies and applied them to his own day. The latest scholarship (which is always subject to further revision) is that First Isaiah (chaps. 1-39) has its roots in the 8th century, but was then heavily edited and revised so that it incorporates many later interpolations, some of which even postdate Second Isaiah (chaps. 40-55, probably a more stable section with fewer editorial insertions and generally dated to around 539 BC). There is a lot of educated guesswork involved concerning specific passages, but whatever Nephi was reading (in a transcription in Egyptian script?), it undoubtedly differed in significant ways from what now appears in the Book of Mormon. Nevertheless, placing Nephi within his own historical context might yield some interesting insights. In some ways, he sounds quite a bit like an early postexilic prophet. The article in the Anchor Bible Dictionary on “Prophecy” notes new themes that are characteristic of that era: repentance, internationalism, eschatology, apocalypticism, visionary experiences, and a transition from doom to hope. And all of this is happening at a time when there is a shift from oral to written forms of prophecy. Nephi takes up many of these themes and he is clearly a writing prophet who is responding to and producing written documents. (Lehi and Jacob seem to write less and talk more.)
The second approach is to start with the King James Version of Isaiah, and identify where the Book of Mormon has adapted or revised that text. There are obviously anachronisms in watching Nephi respond to Second Isaiah, but I think there are faithful ways of dealing with that issue. Still, it is patently obvious that the Book of Mormon, in its current form (as an inspired translation) has taken the KJV as its base text for any biblical borrowings. And there is significance in the variants that reflects Nephi’s concerns about his situation in the New World and his visions of the future.
How’s that for trying to pull back from abstractions?
Indeed, I’m glad to address the concrete questions of textual interpretation. (I find myself wondering whether it wouldn’t be a good idea, in fact, to set up three threads on Isaiah 29: one dedicated to the text, one dedicated to theological reflection on the text, and one dedicated to philosophical discussion of the issues raised in the text and in theological reflection on the text. Any thoughts, anyone?)
In the meanwhile, let me offer up a few much less abstract thoughts about Isaiah 29 in its historical setting. And I should mention from the very start that three commentaries (among many I’ve looked at) have proved the most helpful to me as I’ve grappled with textual issues: Edgar Conrad’s Reading Isaiah, Hans Wildberger’s Isaiah 28-39, and William Beuken’s Isaiah II.
Most commentators break Isaiah 29 into three or four major parts, more or less as follows:
vv. 22-24 (these last two divisions are sometimes considered together as a single unit)
Nephi, for what it’s worth, divides the chapter up quite differently:
vv. 1-2 (which do not appear in Nephi’s adaptation)
These differences alone call for quite a bit of comment. But I think such comment is best left for later, after we have grappled a bit more directly with the Isaiah text as it stands.
Three (or four) sections, then:
Most every commentary interprets these eight verses as telling a story of reversal. Somewhere between the end of verse 4 and the end of verse 5, there is a shift from condemnation of and destruction prophesied against Jerusalem to condemnation of and destruction prophesied against the enemies of Jerusalem. (Commentators differ about exactly where in verse 5 the shift occurs.)
Because there is a manifest shift from judgment against Jerusalem to Jerusalem’s apparent salvation—and because this sudden salvation is cast in obviously theophanic terms—it is common to assign the text’s historical context to the 701 Assyrian debacle mentioned by G/H, the event whose narrative makes up the last chapters of First Isaiah (Isaiah 36-39).
Of course, both of the above paragraphs, even as they summarize what should be called a relative consensus, should not be taken as representing uncontested claims! There are a number of (very interesting) commentators that suggest that there is no shift whatsoever—whether because the same group is talked about in verses 1-4 and verses 5-8, or whether (much more convincingly) because the two groups discussed are both essentially immolated. Especially if this last interpretation has any purchase, there is reason to suggest that the Assyrian siege of 701 is not the historical setting at all. And indeed, several commentators point out that, whatever the historical setting of the prophecy, there is clearly a conscious effort on the writer’s part to subtract the historical situation from the prophecy—to broaden, to universalize, even to apocalypticize the prophecy.
All of these ideas, it seems to me, deserve attention.
One of two approaches usually characterizes commentary on the next six verses. Either (1) the commentator takes this passage as having originated in an entirely distinct historical setting, if not in several distinct historical settings, or (2) the commentator takes the passage as being intimately connected with the eight verses that precede it. Those who follow the former approach often attribute much of this section to subsequent editors (especially the—apparently—prose snippet in verses 11-12), and assign the remainder to Isaiah’s characteristic moments of social criticism. Those who follow the latter approach tend to fall into two camps. On the one hand, there are those who see verses 9-14 as rooted in the same historical situation, such that Isaiah goes on from the events described in verses 1-8 to criticize the leaders in the city who didn’t believe him. On the other hand, there are those who see verses 9-14 as an expansion of or even commentary on verses 1-8, hence as being more or less without a historical context because they have an essentially textual context.
Again, I think all of these possibilities deserve attention.
As mentioned above, it is common enough to split this part of Isaiah 29 into two parts, vv. 15-21 and vv. 22-24. There is a near consensus that the second part (vv. 22-24) originate from either an exilic or even post-exilic situation, especially because of the mention of Abraham.
However all of that should be read, this whole last part of the chapter deals with eschatological projection (many would thus see this passage making of Isaiah 29 a familiar pattern of judgment [vv. 1-14] followed by promise [vv. 15-24]). There are predictions of complete reversal, the turning of the earth into paradise, the repentance of the stubborn/wicked, and the restoration of Jacob.
It should be noted, also, that these verses tend to receive much briefer treatment in the commentaries: usually there is only clarification of the metaphors, discussion of the possibility of subsequent editorial influence, and a word or two of semi-theological discussion. This to be compared with the case of verses 1-14, where one finds in the commentaries ample discussion of historical setting, systematic analysis of redactional genealogies, interpretive creativity, linguistic discussion of obscure terms, theologically comparative work, etc., etc., etc.
Again: all of these points deserve extended attention, in my opinion.
Summing things up
The above is something like an outline of the historico-critical situation with Isaiah 29. Again, if I can recommend three commentaries to consult: Edgar Conrad’s Reading Isaiah (which is not actually a commentary, but very nicely situates Isaiah 29 within the whole book and gives central importance to certain parts of Isaiah 29), Hans Wildberger’s Isaiah 28-39 (which systematically analyzes most of the other important commentaries and opinions), and William Beuken’s Isaiah II (which takes up the historico-critical points in order to begin to press beyond them into something like a proto-canonical-critical reading and is thus very fruitful).
I should finish off my semester here today and begin my Christmas break, so I should have a bit more time in the next few days to flesh out some of these thoughts.
Having just rejoined the discussion after ending my semester in a whirlwind, I have half a mind to crawl humbly back to the (apparent) rigor of exams. I’d appreciate any charity everyone could dredge up in my behalf as I attempt to be faithful to the members of this discussion.
I don’t have anything significant yet to add, but thought I would mark my return to the project.
(Digression to Joe: the idea of charity as “indifference to differences” intrigues me, not least because Nephi’s discussion of Zion and charity in 2 Nephi 26 is a question of wealth and money, which is itself a structure of difference. . . )
(1) How does Nephi adapt Isaiah's text, and what do his methods tell us about what it means to read a scriptural text?
(2) What does 2 Nephi 26-27 tell us about the nature of prophecy, typology, and scriptural application?
(3) How do these chapters provide a clearer understanding of what Nephi is trying to accomplish in his small plates?
(4) What does 2 Nephi 26-27 teach us about the nature, role, and place of the Book of Mormon itself?