The discussion so far has yielded the following structure for the second half or so (beginning with verse 20) of 2 Nephi 26 (plus 2 Nephi 27:1):
(1) 26:20-22a, of the latter-day Gentiles: churches/combinations
___(2) 26:22b-24, parenthetical assertion of positive thesis
______(3) 26:25, summary of double argument
______(4) 26:26-28, first half of double argument fleshed out
______(5) 26:29-31, second half of double argument fleshed out
___(6) 26:32, (still) parenthetical assertion of negative thesis
___(7) 26:33, theological conclusion: universality
(8) 27:1, of the latter-day Gentiles: indifferent wickedness
As is clear from this structuration, I see verse 32 coming back to the questions raised by verses 22b-24: what is in the earlier passage a positive thesis now becomes a negative thesis. In verses 22b-24, Nephi declares what the Lord does; but in verse 32, he declares what the Lord prohibits. These are both gathered up into the overarching claim they might be said to prop up: that secret combinations are “of the devil.” The positive argument: God works out of love and in the light. The negative argument: God emphatically prohibits murder, robbery, and the like. This seems to me relatively straightforward.
Verse 33, then, summarizes the whole 22b-32 stretch by drawing some theological conclusions. Three times Nephi describes the doings of the Lord in this verse. First: “he doeth that which is good among the children of men.” Second: “he doeth nothing save it be plain unto the children of men.” And third: “he inviteth them all to come unto him,” etc. Goodness, plainness, universality.
This comes back, quite nicely, I think, to what was introduced back in verses 20-22a: there the Gentiles are split into apostate churches and secret combinations, into two dialectically intertwined camps structurally at war. Three things distract such polarizing extremes: goodness, plainness, universality. And so the verse ends with a list of the differences that are thus distracted: black/white, bond/free, male/female, heathen/(Israelite?), Jew/Gentile.
But if chapter 26 thus ends on a note of universality (and emphatically a universality of address, of invitation), chapter 27 opens on a note of (the quite different concept of) totality: “all the nations of the Gentiles and also of the Jews, both those who shall come upon this land and those who shall be upon other lands, yea, even upon all the lands of the earth, behold, they will be drunken with iniquity and all manner of abominations.” From a supplementary address that is effectively indifferent to the polarized totality of social structures (I understand universality to be precisely what breaks with totality), we turn to an reassertion of the presence of that polarized totality. (I hope what I’m saying about universality and totality is not too obscure here. I will offer at least this bibliographical clarification: my thinking derives in important ways here from the philosophical work of Alain Badiou–cf. especially his Saint Paul: The Foundation of Universalism and, if you are quite daring, his Being and Event. I should mention also that there is a major gap between what I, with Badiou, am saying and what Emmanuel Levinas has to say about infinity breaking with totality: Levinas’s conception of infinity turns out to be, not universality [which is always tied to singularity], but particularity [which is necessarily still caught up in totality: the part is always a part of the whole]. Badiou discusses this problem in Levinas explicitly in his fantastic little book, Ethics: An Essay on the Understanding of Evil.)
This turn from God’s (singular) supplementary invitation (26:33) to the as-yet-unsupplemented totality (made up of the dialectic between particulars) that it supplements (27:1) sets the reader up nicely: if God’s work is to supplement totalities, then the assertion of a latter-day as-yet-unsupplemented totality in 27:1 makes the reader begin to anticipate the announcement of a supplementary word. It will come in verse 6 (in the shape of the immanent text, the “book,” etc.).
Having thus said perhaps all I really want to say about verses 32 and 33 of chapter 26, my task this week, for the most part is to riddle out the discussion of the latter-day Gentile totality as it is described in verses 1-5, preparatory to the advent of the supplementary word. A few questions that will guide my notes and reflections: (1) Ignoring Isaiah, what do verses 1-5 say about the totality? (2) Still ignoring the Isaiah text, how do verses 1-5 set up the advent of the supplementary word in verse 6? (3) Based on the answers to these initial questions, what can be said, finally, about Nephi’s appropriation of Isaiah? Each question will be taken in turn.
(1) Ignoring Isaiah, what do verses 1-5 say about the totality?
This is the question, first and foremost, of content. As such, I’ll address it verse by verse.
The totality is, from the very beginning, established as being one composed of the polarized relationship between “the Gentiles and also the Jews.” That “the Jews” are attached to “the nations of the Gentiles” with the secondarilizing “also” is important: the Gentiles, it would seem, are the totalizing element of the totality, while the Jews play the role of the emphatically particularizing element of the totality. The Gentiles and the Jews would thus seem to be in a kind of dialectic: the Gentiles define their totality through the exclusion of the Jews, and the Jews define their particularity by their condemnation of the Gentiles. Each thus relies entirely on the other for their self-definition: we have a classic Hegelian dialectic, and thus a class Hegelian totality.
What is quite importantly unnamed in this dialectic is the House of Israel. There is, it should be noted, a rather consistent difficulty in the Book of Mormon (or, in First, Second, and Third Nephi) about the relationship between the terms “the Jews” and “the House of Israel”: it is generally murky how these two groups are meant to be related to one another. But perhaps the quasi-philosophical approach I’m taking here to this text is helpful: Israel goes unnamed here precisely because it will prove to have been, when the book suddenly shows up in verse 6, an unnamed void in the totalized situation. When the book names that void (the promises made to the fathers, the covenants taken from the book that proceeded forth out of the mouth of the Jew, etc.), the totality will be supplemented by a genuinely generic truth (Israel will be made up of repentant Israelites, converted Jews, and helpful Gentiles, etc.). In short, Israel goes unnamed here precisely because it will only be named with the advent of the supplementary word.
I find this fascinating: the Book of Mormon might here be said to be supplementary to the world precisely in its distracting of the polarity between the Jews and the Gentiles, something it accomplishes by naming the void in the situation, namely, scattered Israel. (I apologize for how emphatically Badiouian my language is getting here. Hopefully it can be followed without me having to drag everyone through a few–very rewarding!–philosophy books!)
All this clarified, verse 1 goes to point out that this polarized relationship between the Jews and the Gentiles will have become a worldwide phenomenon: “both those who shall come upon this land [the Americas] and those who shall be upon other lands, yea, even upon all the lands of the earth.” The whole world, it would seem, has been caught up into the totalizing polarity of the Jews and Gentiles, and Israel is being overlooked (essentially voided) everywhere. (Postcolonialism, eat your heart out.)
Finally, Nephi describes those involved in the dialectic as being “drunken with iniquity and all manner of abominations.” It is quite an image, and one that anticipates similar images (taken from Isaiah) in verses 3 and 4.
Nephi is suddenly talking about some kind of violent theophany. The language is obviously apocalyptic. It should be noted that this verse, even as it quotes Isaiah, at least alludes to 26:6, where Nephi describes the visit of Christ to the Lehites (in Third Nephi). Here, however, the visitation is to the Gentiles-and-Jews.
The visitation is that of “the Lord of Hosts,” the Lord of heavenly armies, such that this “visitation” takes on the meaning of a kind of invasion, but one that has as its features natural phenomena: earthquakes, thunder, tempests, etc. The connection between the arrival of a host of angels and the sudden eruption of violent natural phenomena is made in at least Second Temple Judaism: different angels are assigned to hold different natural phenomena in check, and so the release of natural chaos is a direct result of angelic intervention (or really: the lack of thereof). Whether this is what Nephi has in mind is unclear. (Margaret Barker, of course, surmises that this sort of belief is older than the second temple, and so she finds these kinds of discussions in Isaiah to be evidence of the “Older Testament,” etc. That possibility is, of course, a real one.)
But what seems most important to me is the connection between the constant increase of violence in the dialectical interplay of (the parts of) a totality (cf. Girard, if you will) and the breaking point described here. Nephi himself seems to espouse the idea (again and again in his two books) that two wicked parties at odds with one another will be locked in a pattern of constant escalation that will only come to a full conclusion when frenetic violence breaks out. Nephi generally describes that apocalyptic conclusion in one of two ways: (1) the wicked kill each other; (2) the wrath of God is poured out upon the wicked. Can one assume that these are equivalent? That is, can one assume that the wrath of God never implies a physical violence undertaken on the part of God, but that the wicked destroy the wicked in their own obsessively frenetic violence? If so, the visitation described in this verse may well be taken as a nicely poetic expansion of the idea of the “wrath of God.”
Here we have the first naming of the supplementary, though only in passing: what is neither Jew nor Gentile is Zion. It is only named here: nothing else is said about it. But of course, it should also be recognized that the name here replaces the name “Ariel” in the original Isaiah text. What can be read into this substitution?
The escalating violence of the dialectical totality is here described in terms of dreams. Tempted as I am to discuss Freud (and Lacan) at some length here, I’ll just say a word or two about this.
At the very least, it can be said that the desire to destroy Zion is entirely fantastic: it is a fantasy. Put another way: the nations themselves, arrayed in all their military glory, is all a fantasy image, an ideological projection.
This takes the clearest shape in the discussion of the hungry/thirsty man dreaming. As Freud points out, one of the most important reasons we dream is to keep us asleep. This is evident from dreams where we take care of some actual physical need in the dream (the common example is urination), thereby fantastically convincing ourselves that there is no need to wake up to take care of things. The Isaiah passage Nephi uses draws on precisely this idea: the hungry man dreams that he is eating, and it is a way of keeping himself asleep; the thirsty man dreams that he drinks, and it is a way of keeping himself asleep.
To compare the scapegoating battle against Zion to this is beautiful. The nations feel a genuine need to destroy Zion, which stands as a constant reminder that their totality is not, in fact, total. But they can only fantasize about destroying Zion. Every time they tell themselves that they have done something to rid the world of the common enemy, they realize all over again that they have done nothing. Their fantasies are a way of keeping themselves blind, asleep, dead to reality.
The apocalyptic pouring out of the wrath of God is precisely the willful blindness of the dialectically intertwined Gentiles and Jews.
Here Nephi suddenly shifts from speaking in the third person to addressing the Jews and Gentiles themselves in the second person. I’ll take up this question more directly in next section (on structure), but it is worth mentioning here because Nephi is essentially calling the attention of these two groups to the fantastic nature of their fantasies.
I’ll confess I really like what Nephi does to the Isaiah text here. What was originally a parallelism (Stay yourselves / and wonder / cry ye out / and cry) has been split here into two distinct modes of address: the “stay yourselves and wonder” business has remained in the imperative form (Nephi commands the polarized Jews and Gentiles to stay themselves and wonder at what he is describing to them), but the “cry ye out and cry” business has become a prophetic future (Nephi commands his addressees to stay themselves and wonder at the fact that, sometime later on, they will cry out and cry).
The emphasis in the Nephi text, then, is on the marvelous blindness of the Jews/Gentiles: they should be shocked at their own situation, because it will eventually come to an apocalyptic climax.
This verse follows from the preceding one. If Nephi addresses the Jews/Gentiles in a kind of prophetic present, commanding them to wonder at the prophetic future he announces, he now gives them to understand what might be called the prophetic past (it is a future anterior, a future anterior to the present of the prophetic present of verse 4), in which “the Lord hath poured out upon [them] the spirit of deep sleep.”
Here again is the theme of blindness, unconsciousness, drunkenness, sleep. To be locked in the dialectic is to be structurally unable to see anything else.
And yet verse 6 will introduce into that totality a genuine supplement, something neither the Jews nor the Gentiles will be able to read, so to speak. And this leads to the second question.
(2) Still ignoring the Isaiah text, how do verses 1-5 set up the advent of the supplementary word in verse 6?
This is the question, first and foremost, of structure. Hence, I want to take a preliminary stab at riddling out the structure of the first part of chapter 27. The indentations are meant to mark the temporal position of the events or situations described in each passage:
(1) 27:1, the condition of the latter-day Gentiles: totality
______(2) 27:2-3, the eventual consequence (in the third person)
___(3) 27:4-8a*, the possibility of escape (in the second person)
___(4) 27:8b-x, the story of the emergent possibility (in the third person again)
* I’m dividing verse 8 at “abominations of the people,” such that verse 8b is only “Wherefore the book shall be kept from them.”
What can be said, briefly, about the importance of this structure, and especially about how it orients this whole passage to the advent of the supplementary word in verse 6?
I find especially the temporal logic of these verses interesting. I see them dividing the prophetic future (for us, the simple present) into three “stages.” Stage 1 is described in verse 1: the dialectical totality represented by the (wicked) interrelations of the Jews and Gentiles. Stage 2 is described starting in verse 4: the advent of the Book of Mormon comes as a wake-up call, supplementing the totality described in verse 1. Stage 3 is described in verses 2-3: eventually, the polarized forces making up the dialectic will result in apocalyptic destruction.
Those are the stages in chronological order. But Nephi presents them in a different order: stage 1 (verse 1), stage 3 (verses 2-3), and stage 2 (verses 4+). Nephi thus describes: first, the totality itself; second, the ultimate consequence of the totality’s problematic nature; and then third, the supplementation that allows for a way off of the path toward that ultimate consequence. In other words, Nephi’s way of arranging his prophetic description of our day allows him to show how a kind of necessary logic (the movement from stage 1 to stage 3) can be subverted by the advent of the supplementary Book of Mormon (stage 2).
Of course, Nephi does not actually turn to the advent of the supplementary word until verse 6. Hence, verses 4-5 play an important preparatory role: they turn from stages 1 and 3 to stage 2, but they do not actually announce the book. The shift is marked by the move from third person description to second person address: in verses 1-3, where Nephi describes the inevitable logic of a divided people, he only describes things from a distance, as it were; but in verse 4-5, where Nephi begins to turn to the question of the time between the formation of the totality and the eschatological collapse of the same, he addresses those involved in the totality directly. This direct address is itself already a supplementary word in a sense: Nephi, within the very book he will announce beginning in verse 6, addresses those who will receive the supplementary word. He, in verse 4-5, begins to perform the supplementary word he is about to announce.
This does much to prepare the way, it seems to me, for what comes after.
(I should note also that the second person address only continues, as I point out above, into the beginning of verse 8. After Nephi has performed and introduced the supplementary book, he returns to the dispassionate third person position of descriptive prophecy. We’ll have to ask why next week.)
Content and structure addressed, it is time to take up much more directly the role that Isaiah quotation plays in all of this.
(3) Based on the answers to these initial questions, what can be said, finally, about Nephi’s appropriation of Isaiah?
First, it must be pointed out that the words of Isaiah, at least as they appear in the KJV, are relatively unchanged here. There are changes, of course, and I will address them here, but they are nothing to the kinds of changes Nephi will be making beginning with verse 6, and they are even quite a bit less drastic than the changes Nephi was making to Isaiah in chapter 26. What does this tell us about Nephi’s relationship to these verses in Isaiah 29?
Second, then: what can be said, broadly and positively speaking, about Nephi’s adaptation here? I’ll number some initial thoughts:
(1) Nephi has separated Isaiah 29:3-5 from Isaiah 29:6-10 by half a chapter (the whole second half of chapter 26). In part, this parenthetical aside has allowed Nephi to shift temporal registers between likenings: his likening of Isaiah 29:3-5 took up the text in terms of the Nephites, but his likening here of Isaiah 29:6-10 takes up the text in terms of the Gentiles (vis a vis the Lamanites). There is thus a leap from the era of Moroni (in the likening of Isaiah 29:3-5) to the era of the Gentile-Lamanite entanglement (in the likening of Isaiah 29:6-10). At the same time, of course, the fact that Nephi returns to Isaiah marks the continuity of the story: the destruction of the Nephites—paired with the writing up of the Book of Mormon—will have everything to do with the Gentile-Lamanite situation about to be discussed. (Indeed, one further comment is worth making about this: Isaiah 29:3-5, because of how Nephi edited it to make the voice from the dust a question of a written text to resurface later, essentially disrupts the flow of Isaiah 29:6-10 by its being tied to Isaiah 29:11-12, these two verses being the only two verses in Isaiah 29 that are clearly prose. Hmmm. More on this later.)
(2) 2 Nephi 27:2=Isaiah 29:6 echoes 2 Nephi 26:6 (or rather, 2 Nephi 26:6 echoes Isaiah 29:6=2 Nephi 27:2), a verse that describes the destruction of the Lehites at the time of Christ’s visit to the Americas. At the very least, this suggests some kind of connection between the Lamanite-Nephite difficulties in Helaman and Third Nephi and the Gentile-Jewish difficulties of the last days as Nephi describes them.
(3) Of all five Isaiah verses here taken up (Isaiah 29:6-10), only verse 6, adapted in 2 Nephi 27:2, is subjected to changes in person: the second person is consistently changed to the third person. Because of the association, on Nephi’s part, of Isaiah 29:5 with Isaiah 29:3-4, it could be argued that he had to change Isaiah 29:6 to fit in with the general tenor of Isaiah 29:7-8. But what else might be read into the changes?
(4) Isaiah 29:7, as adopted in 2 Nephi 27:3, has a few significant deletions: “the multitude of” is subtracted from the beginning of teh verse, and, following the substitution of Zion for Ariel, “even all that fight against her and her munition” is also subtracted. What do these deletions suggest, if anything? Is it of any significance that a phrase using the word “multitude” was also subtracted from Isaiah 29:5 back in 2 Nephi 26?
(5) What, we’ve already begun to ask, can be read into the shift from “Ariel” to “Zion”?
(6) Scholars generally separate Isaiah 29:9-10 from Isaiah 29:1-8, taking verses 9-10 to be a distinct text that was only placed side by side with verses 1-8 through some kind of redaction. Nephi’s approach, however, is to link them, using the connecting phrase (which he adds himself): “for behold, all ye that do iniquity.” How does this give us to read Isaiah 29? It is, of course, precisely here that Nephi sets up his major transition from third person discussion to second person discussion, and so it is here, in bridging what scholars generally describe as an unbridgeable gap, that Nephi sets up the real shift towards the advent of the supplementary word (in verse 6). Do we not here have a very interesting clue about how Nephi reads Isaiah? Does this suggest that he imposes unity on a redacted mess? That he looks for patterns that redactors introduced into the text? That he tries to see how the accidental tensions introduced through the redactional process might give one to think one’s own situation? What?
(7) Isaiah 29:10 is a point of some theological contention in the commentaries. It is often connected with Isaiah 6, since both there and here there seems to be the implication that God removes free will by electing certain figures to be hardened. Wildberger, for instance, makes an argument that both passages have to be understood carefully: the hardening is a consequence of one’s willful disobedience. Von Rad, on the other hand, suggests that the theme of hardening should be grappled with more directly: God’s inscrutable plan accomplishes some remarkable things through the hardening of certain hearts. (I’ll confess I find von Rad’s reading to be very fruitful for Latter-day Saint purposes.) At any rate, it is interesting that, however Isaiah himself should be read, Nephi makes a few adjustments so that it is clear that there is agency or free will: the Lord pours out a deep sleep because the Gentiles/Jews have closed their eyes.
Anyway, there are a few thoughts about Isaiah here. But of course I’ve hardly done anything exhaustive. What else deserves attention?
The Four Key Questions
To this point, we’ve paid far too little explicit attention to the four key questions that are meant to guide our discussions. I wanted to tie up the loose ends of my relatively scattered thoughts this week by addressing these questions one by one in terms of the passages I’ve discussed. As I found myself a bit more swamped than I expected in trying to work through these passages, I’ll postpone that task for myself until the discussion summary.