I will divide this first post on Second Nephi into two parts: I want first to dwell at some length on a couple of exegetical (and hermeneutical) difficulties that face the faithful interpreter of these verses; and then I want to take up something like a (not quite) line-by-line discussion of the verses we are covering this week. The first of these two parts will be something like a rambling reflection that reveals the extent to which I am still grappling with the difficulties of this text. The second will be something like an unorganized series of textual notes. My apologies for the less-than-perfectly-coherent nature of my post this week. I hope that our discussion will rarify what I’ve put together here so that I can write up a discussion summary that is far more productive than this!
Exegetical (and Hermeneutical) Difficulties with 2 Nephi 26:1-7(, 9)
In order to set up what seems to me the single most complex aspect of these verses, exegetically speaking, I want to set this passage within a broader trajectory that I see working across the entire 2 Nephi 25-27 stretch.
First of all, it is important to recognize the place of the whole of 2 Nephi 25-30 within First and Second Nephi. As I read Nephi’s two books, they fall into a fourfold structure (one that is made clear in a number of metadiscursive parts of Nephi’s text): part 1 (which recounts the creation of the Lehite people) stretches from 1 Nephi 1 to 1 Nephi 18; part 2 (which recounts the subsequent fall of the Lehites, their splitting into two distinct peoples, one of which is “cut off from the presence of the Lord”) stretches from 1 Nephi 19 to 2 Nephi 5; part 3 (which makes up the “more sacred” part of Nephi’s record and records the words of three messengers—Jacob, Isaiah, and Nephi—sent to bring to the fallen Lehites so many words about the eventual reconciliation or atonement of the schismatic tribes) stretches from 2 Nephi 6 to 2 Nephi 30; and part 4 (which records Nephi’s final words of instruction, primarily concerning baptism, which is presented as a gate and which is described in terms reminiscent of the veil) stretches from 2 Nephi 31 to 2 Nephi 33. We thus have:
(1) 1 Nephi 1-18, creation
(2) 1 Nephi 19 – 2 Nephi 5, fall
(3) 2 Nephi 6-30, atonement
(4) 2 Nephi 31-33, veil
2 Nephi 25-30, within which falls the text we are considering throughout the course of the seminar, makes up an important part of the third portion of Nephi’s text: these six chapters record the words that Nephi offers up from his place within the trio of angelic messengers sent to instruct the fallen Nephites and Lamanites about how they can eventually be reconciled and so together pass into the (at least symbolic, perhaps real) presence of the Lord.
(I should note, by way of anticipation, how important this contextualization may prove to be for our interpretation of the place Isaiah plays in 2 Nephi 26-27. The “presiding” figure among the three messengers of 2 Nephi 6-30 is clearly Isaiah, who is given a chiastically central place in these chapters, and whose words are quoted and likened at length by both Nephi and Jacob in their contributions to these chapters. What we will be looking at, essentially, is how Nephi does his work of presenting and making sense of the commanding figure of the announcement of atonement. More on all of this, though, during later discussions.)
All of that said, it must be recognized that 2 Nephi 25-27, within which I think I detect an important interpretive trajectory (interpretive on Nephi’s part, not mine), makes up the first half of Nephi’s contribution to this atonement theme. And what trajectory, then, underpins these three chapters in particular?
I see this trajectory as made up of three parts.
(1) A theoretical discussion of typological reading of the Old Testament (in 2 Nephi 25) gives way to:
(2) a kind of “unconscious” typological reading of Malachi 4:1-2 (in 2 Nephi 26:1-13); and
(3) a kind of “conscious” typological reading of Isaiah 29:3-24 (in 2 Nephi 26:14 – 27:35).
(This trajectory continues, in fact, into the subsequent three chapters: 2 Nephi 28 is given to the ways that such texts are subverted by learning, riches, and the like; 2 Nephi 29 articulates a full-blown theory of texts and textuality; and 2 Nephi 30 makes a significant return to Isaiah.) Three parts, then: an explicitly theoretical discussion of typology, followed by two typological readings, one “unconscious” and one “conscious.” It is the “unconscious” one that is found in this week’s (and in next week’s) text: Nephi likens (or typologically reads) Malachi 4:1-2.
I don’t know that I need to dwell at any length on the theoretical discussion of 2 Nephi 25: Nephi moves from a concrete address to his “children” and “brethren” to an abstract (meaning apparently addressed to no one) discussion (beginning in 25:21 and ending with 25:27) of how typology works. The structure of typological understanding is relatively familiar: an event reorients, recodes, or reconfigures the prevailing situation in a novel way. For Nephi: the Christ event, announced but not yet having taken place, reorients, recodes, or reconfigures the Law of Moses. Simple enough.
But what does need to be mentioned about Nephi’s abstract discussion of typology is that he ties typological reading very closely to the writing of texts. For him, typological reading is something one writes, is a question of texts reworking texts: the antitypical event that recodes what is has its full sway only when the recoding takes the shape of a text.
This model of typological reading—one that sees the writing of a text as the “endpoint” of typological thought—is significant because it anticipates Nephi’s two subsequent typological readings: two Old Testament texts are rewritten. First, Malachi, and second, Isaiah.
So what it seems to me is our primary task in our first two weeks of discussion is to take a look at Nephi’s reworking of Malachi 4:1-2, so that we can subsequently set it over against his reworking of Isaiah 29:3-24.
If that is clear enough, it is now time to unearth the problem with all of this: Nephi shouldn’t have had Malachi 4:1-2 on hand at all! Indeed, while Nephi’s remarkable adaptation of Malachi 4:1-2 in this text is essentially a hermeneut’s dream, it is a (faithful) exegete’s nightmare: if the hermeneut can forget about the historical-critical difficulties and simply deal with the adaptations, the exegete cannot, and thus becomes mired in difficulties. Of course, since the hermeneut has to draw on the conclusions of the exegete in order to produce the best work, we are facing both the nightmare and the dream. A few remarks, then…
First, I think it needs to be noted that this is a unique text in the Book of Mormon. While Book of Mormon authors, at least when translated into English, often draw phrases from the New Testament to which they could not have had access, it is only here in the Book of Mormon (at least, so far as I am aware) that a Book of Mormon author draws phrases from an Old Testament text to which he could not have had access. Moreover, if one can rely on something like Blake Ostler’s “expansionist theory” to explain the presence of New Testament language in the Book of Mormon, one cannot make such a move in this case, because Christ states plainly in Third Nephi that Malachi 3-4 was not had among the Nephites (i.e., was not on the brass plates).
What we have here, in short, is a major problem: Nephi appears to quote from a text to which Christ later makes clear (in the same Book of Mormon) he did not have access. What should be made of this?
A few possible solutions:
(1) Malachi was, in 4:1-2, quoting a source that both he and Nephi had readily available (i.e., a source that was on the brass plates and that Malachi had in some form in Judea in the fifth century B.C.E.). This solution, in my opinion, fails to satisfy on a number of accounts.
(2) Here we have evidence that Joseph Smith messed up, whether that implies that Joseph had too much a hand in the writing of the Book of Mormon, or that the Book of Mormon was entirely Joseph’s work. This, of course, fails to satisfy the faithful reader, and I am a faithful reader.
(3) One could suggest that the Spirit speaks with a singular voice, such that prophets far removed from each other will sometimes produce the same text in independent circumstances. This too fails to satisfy, in my opinion: first, because it has so little evidence in scripture generally, and second, because it completely dismantles the rich hermeneutical possibilities connected with recognizing an explicit connection.
(4) Perhaps Nephi had unique access to Malachi, access that was not passed along to subsequent Nephite generations. For example, he might have become familiar with Malachi’s text even before it was written through some kind of vision or revelation. This is perhaps a very real possibility, given that Nephi draws on Malachi’s text precisely when he is discussing the then-future visitation of the Christ to the Nephites during which Malachi 3-4 would be given to the Nephites. It is almost as if Nephi is anticipating their reception of the text, and then he is playing on the text they will then receive. This might be further strengthened by the apparent unfamiliarity of the general Nephite populace with Nephi’s writings: though the prophets who had charge of the records seem to have been familiar with the small plates, most Nephites do not seem to have been familiar with them (as evidence, cf. 3 Nephi 11’s discussion of disputations over the doctrine of Christ, etc., as well as Mormon’s apparent ignorance of the record before he found mention of it in King Benjamin’s history, as described in the Words of Mormon). Could it therefore be that Nephi had, through some vision or revelation, seen or heard the text of Malachi 3-4 and then written it down, but that the written text was never circulated among the Nephites generally, so that Christ had to give them what they had among them but had never read? These are possibilities that perhaps deserve a bit more probing.
(5) Finally, one could suggest that it is not Nephi so much as God who is adapting Malachi in 2 Nephi 26. This is a real possibility, but I think it veers a bit too close to the “the Spirit speaks the same words to all prophets” argument for comfort. Again, the hermeneutical richness of the text begins to slip away.
Of these several possibilities, it seems to me that number 4 is the most promising, though it needs to be expanded and worked on, if it is to be defending from a historical-critical standpoint, with exegetical rigor. What seems most vital, to me at least, from the standpoint of that argument (number 4, that is) is that it recognizes an explicit connection between the text of 2 Nephi 26 and the discourse of Christ in 3 Nephi 20-26. Hermeneutically, this is, I think, vital: Nephi, in prophesying of the event of the Christ’s appearance, begins to interpret in advance what He will have to say, and this interpretation takes the explicit form of a rewriting of received texts. 2 Nephi 26 would thus conform precisely to the abstract/theoretical argument of 2 Nephi 25.
All of that, I hope, spells out what seems to me to be the biggest difficulty and in many ways the central problem of 2 Nephi 26:1-13. (I hope also that my halting prose has not gotten in the way of my attempt to lay all of this out in a somewhat clear way!) With all of that clear, I would like to turn to 2 Nephi 26:1-7 in some detail, more or less in commentary style, to flesh out what I have inarticulately argued above.
(Not Quite) Line-by-Line Discussion of 2 Nephi 26:1-7
The chapter break between chapters 25 and 26 is somewhat arbitrary (chapters 25-27 made up a single chapter in 1830). As such, verse 1 here continues a discussion that concludes chapter 25. I mentioned before that 25:21-27 makes up a theoretical or abstract discussion of typology, abstract in that it breaks with the direct address form that shapes the rest of the chapter, both up through verse 20 but also in verses 28-30. 26:1 thus is a continuation of the again-concrete discussion of 25:28-30. Those last three verses of the previous chapter are thus vital: drawing from the rigor of the theoretical discussion of 25:21-27, Nephi in 25:28-30 tells his people (his “children,” the Nephites, and his “brethren,” the Lamanites) to keep the Law of Moses while worshiping the prophesied Christ. 26:1 then moves along to command them further to take “the words which he [Christ] shall speak” as their new “law” when he appears to them in person. The event referred to is clearly that of the visitation in Third Nephi.
All of that for context. A point or two about content.
I find it interesting that Nephi is essentially showing here that each typological reading has eventually to be trumped by a further typological reading. That is, he has argued in 2 Nephi 25 that the revelation of the still-to-come atonement event has recast the Law of Moses already for him; and now he suggests that even that recast Law of Moses has to be recast again when the event of Christ’s New World visitation comes. Readings—indeed, texts—would seem to be in constant flux, continually shifting under the weight of events that give the faithful to recast them. There is, here, something like a model of continuous typological reorientation, grounded in the assertion that events are always happening.
One other point about verse 1. I think it is interesting that Nephi specifically mentions the resurrection in this verse: “And after Christ shall have risen from the dead . . . .” On the one hand, of course, this is merely a point of reference making it clear when Christ will come to the Lehites. But on the other hand, there is already a highlighting of the theme of death and its being overcome, a theme that will prove to be central to 2 Nephi 26-27 on the whole. This should prove fruitful, in the end.
After announcing the visit of Christ and the associated recasting of the recast Law of Moses, Nephi describes the signs associated with that event—the signs leading up to Christ’s actual arrival. In this verse, he passes over the years intervening between his (Nephi’s) writing about all of this and the actual giving of the signs. And he does so simply by summing up that six hundred years as so many “wars and contentions.”
This brief passage of a few centuries and then detailed discussion of the climactic signs before Christ’s visitation is a kind of pattern for Nephi: 2 Nephi 26:2-9 follows almost exactly 1 Nephi 12:1-6. Why this pattern?
Three events receive signs here: Christ’s “birth,” “death,” and “resurrection,” the last two being paired and together separated, to some extent, from the first. Here one finds the first reference to Malachi 4: “great and terrible shall that day be unto the wicked.” It is a brief and almost too generic reference, but in light of the subsequent references, it deserves to be named as one.
The signs are taken here as destructive, specifically to those who have “cast out the prophets, and the saints,” who “stone them, and slay them.” The emphasis is clearly on the violence of the wicked to be destroyed, perhaps as a kind of justification for the retribution. Indeed, there is specific mention of the blood of the saints crying for this retribution or vengeance (a reference to the Cain and Abel story, a brother-killing-brother story that is in some sense at the heart of the whole of the Book of Mormon).
Again here one finds the theme of death already being central: blood cries from the ground, much in the way that a voice will be heard later whispering out of the dust. And yet here there is no suggestion that there is a text that justifies the retribution, only that the shed blood requires it. Blood vs. texts?
Now we get a full-blown quotation of Malachi 4:1: “Wherefore, all those who are proud, and that do wickedly, the day that cometh shall burn them up, saith the Lord of Hosts, for they shall be as stubble.” Full-blown quotation, but obvious changes to the text as well. A comparison:
Malachi 4:1 – For, behold,
2 Nephi 26:4 – Wherefore,
Malachi 4:1 – the day cometh, that shall burn as an oven;
2 Nephi 26:4 – [nil]
Malachi 4:1 – and all the proud, yea, and all that do wickedly,
2 Nephi 26:4 – all those who are proud, and that do wickedly,
Malachi 4:1 – shall be stubble: and the day that cometh shall burn them up, saith the Lord of hosts,
2 Nephi 26:4 – the day that cometh shall burn them up, saith the Lord of Hosts, for they shall be as stubble.
Malachi 4:1 – that it shall leave them neither root nor branch.
2 Nephi 26:4 – [nil]
(1) In the Malachi text, the “For, behold,” introduces a kind of final warning, an announcement of what is to come. The “Wherefore” of the Nephi text makes the announcement a kind of double of what Nephi has already announced: destruction for the wicked, etc.
(2) Thus Nephi drops out the proclamatory “the day cometh, that shall burn as an oven,” de-announcement-ifying the Malachi text.
(3) Nephi’s slight adjustments here equate the proud with those who do wickedly (he indicts all those “who are proud, and that do wickedly,” a single group), whereas the Malachi text seems to speak of two different kinds of people who will be destroyed, the proud on the one hand, and those who do wickedly on the other. One could say that for Nephi there is an either/or here: one is either humble/righteous or wicked/proud. For Malachi, though, there seems to be a threefold division of the people: there are the righteous/humble (celestial?), the proud (terrestrial?), and the wicked (telestial?).
(4) There are only two changes here, really. The first phrase of the Malachi text is moved to the end of the Nephi text, apparently to make sense grammatically, given the dropping of the announcement language of part 2. The other change is that Nephi makes the imagery here more obviously metaphorical: the wicked and proud will be as stubble.
(5) Nephi leaves off the destroyed tree imagery, the theme of genealogy. On the one hand, this seems odd, given the concerns of the remainder of 2 Nephi 26-27. But on the other hand, it is perfectly fitting, since those concerns will only emerge with 2 Nephi 26:14, and here, the destructions at the time of the visitation of Christ are in question, when genealogies will not be cut off.
What else can be said about the differences between the Malachi text and the Nephi text?
Here we have something of a summary of 3 Nephi 8. Some have pointed out the employment in that chapter of the four elements (earth, fire, water, and wind), but Nephi’s version is much more stripped down. He focuses on four kinds of destruction: swallowing up, covering over, carrying away, and crushing. Each of these emphasizes the disappearance of the people: bodies are never left, visibly, behind. The destruction is, one could say, complete. It is interesting that only the last of the four concerns man-made structures: buildings falling down on the people.
Nephi here provides an alternative list of destructions, now listed as a series of visitations: “they shall be visited with . . . .” The list is reminiscent of Isaiah 29:6, reworked in 2 Nephi 27:2. This is interesting because it essentially connects, at least literarily, the destruction of the Lehites at Christ’s death to the destruction of the Gentiles at the Second Coming. What can be made of this implied connection?
Moreover, this verse returns to Malachi 4:1: “and they shall be as stubble, and the day that cometh shall consume them, saith the Lord of Hosts.” Compare this with: “shall be stubble: and the day that cometh shall burn them up, saith the Lord of hosts.” That the texts are tied is obvious. Again “stubble” is changed to “as stubble.” But now “burn . . . up” is replaced with “consume.” Why? Especially when “burn . . . up” was borrowed before without question? Is there an emphatic distancing from the Malachi text at work here? (Is this anticipatory of a further distancing in 2 Nephi 26:9?)
And suddenly Nephi begins to mourn. There is again a hint of a connection with an earlier text: 1 Nephi 15:5, where Nephi describes his anguish over the destruction of his people, which he had witnessed in his vision.
Moreover, there is a similarity in Nephi’s style in mourning here and his “psalm” of 2 Nephi 4. The phrases “I must cry unto my God” and “of my soul” are obvious ties, but so is the “I feel this way, but I must feel this other way” pattern he employs. There is likely some fruitful work to be done in comparing this verse with the psalm more closely.
There is an interesting tie between the “it well nigh consumeth me before the presence of the Lord” of this verse and the change from “burn them up” to “consume them” in the preceding verse. Is the change of the Malachi text undertaken specifically to make a connection between the destruction of the people and Nephi’s own emotive response?
Why does Nephi place himself in a ritual position in this verse? Why does the destruction call him “before the presence of the Lord” and make him adopt the language of the psalm? Is there any significant, on this point, in his suddenly speaking of “my people”? And why does this all come with a sudden return to Nephi’s “I, Nephi” language? And what of the wisdom language buried in “thy ways are just”?
There is a great deal more to think about with this verse.
Indeed, with all seven verses here.