3 Nephi 27: 6-12
Here goes an attempt at reading these verses. You knew, didn’t you, that I wouldn’t be able to resist speculation? As such, I know this needs more thought and fine tuning, and perhaps more explanation about some of my own assumptions. But I am responding as closely as I can to the text itself and the clues it provides. I believe that what distinguishes a good misreading from a bad one, among other things, is that it tries to respond to the textual clues about reading that the text itself provides. We can consider such clues the metatext of the text. And Nephi provides a great many such clues. That seems to be the essence of what we can learn from Nephi’s use of Isaiah—it hints at what it means to read the Book of Mormon itself and perhaps how to do so.
Verse six establishes simply that the Lord will bring forth unto his addressee (“unto you”) the words of a book that will come from them which have slumbered. Nephi appears to be addressing the remnant of the House of Israel as well as all people anywhere, especially those who have “closed [their] eyes” and rejected the prophets because of iniquity. So it is both a historically specific people of the covenant he addresses (the remnant of the House of Israel, as indicated in the footnote in Mormon 5:12) but also apparently any reader. This is surmised from his opening address in this chapter to the Jews and the Gentiles and to “those who shall be upon other lands, yea, even upon all lands of the earth” (verse 1). We have already raised this interesting question of an overly dichotomized world of Jews and Gentiles. The verses seem to leave open the possibility that such a binary intimates a much broader and whole human family.
So the words of the book will come from those who slumber, presumably meaning those who have died, speaking out of the dust of the earth. What is intriguing is the fact that this slumbering is directly contrasted to the slumbering stupor of the wicked alluded to in verse 5 (“the Lord hath poured out upon you the spirit of a deep sleep”). The parallel language here, then, suggests that the moment of reading these words both wakes the slumbering dead—revives their pastness into a presence, in both senses of the word—and wakes the slumbering wicked by calling them to a state of repentance and perhaps righteousness. This would suggest that the power to revive the meaning of the words of the dead requires something from the reader, a purification of the heart, a point verse 12 makes most emphatically. (On a side note, this is why I like Gadamer’s argument that prejudice is not the obstacle to authentic textual meaning—it is in fact the vehicle, as long as it is something we are conscious of. We can’t escape the blindness caused by the specificities of our human and historical condition that inform how we read, but we can perhaps invoke them in humility to gain access to God’s meaning. This is what I argued in my 3 Nephi paper. I will attach it for anyone interested.)
Verse 7 reiterates the point made in 26:17 and even repeats the use of the term “sealed.” That is, this book contains words that describe a history of a people (“the things which shall be done among them”) but although these words “shall be written” they are “sealed up” and are unavailable, perhaps unreadable to those “who have dwindled in unbelief.” Verse 7 here rehearses this notion that the Lord reveals his will in books as histories of a people but he seals them, or withholds them from readers until “mine own due time” (verse 10, also echoed in Ether 3:27). This is stated explicitly in 27:8 (“the book shall be kept from them”). Rising to the challenge of reading seems to begin with a recognition of the fact of the Lord’s having withheld the fulness of revelation from us.
Nephi explains that the book contains “a revelation from God, from the beginning of the world to the ending thereof” (7). This seems to be an elaboration on Isaiah’s statement that “the vision of all is become unto you as the words of a book that is sealed….” (vs.11). Here Nephi appears to substitute “the vision of all” with the idea of a totalizing book of revelations of all time. He speaks for several verses before finally returning to the language of Isaiah in the rest of verse 11 and 12 of chapter 29. In the interim it appears that he helps to develop the meaning of Isaiah’s reference to a book that cannot be read by the learned because it is sealed.
And this is my attempt to understand what he adds. While Nephi seems to offer Isaiah’s verses as a prophecy regarding Joseph Smith and the Charles Anton incident, he sets the stage for an even broader meaning. That is, if the episode of the authentication of the translation is a fulfillment of prophecy, it also becomes an allegory for something even broader in implication. Nephi’s implicit allegorization of the Anton incident is anticipated in the allegorizing language of Isaiah himself. Note that Isaiah speaks allegorically when he says: “the vision of all is become unto you as a book that is sealed.” An allegory of what, exactly? Nephi’s explanations, the context of 19th century experience, and our contemporary perspective would seem to complete the allegory: the rejection of the authenticated translation by a learned man is an allegory of the wisdom of the world and its rejection of revelation, a mistake we must not make. This rejection allegorizes the sacred book as an emblem of a history that is lost to us until sufficient repentance has taken place. The reader is implied to be someone always awaiting a further opening of a sealed book, but because the Book of Mormon itself suggests its own sealed and lost portions and suggests other records waiting to come forth until all revelations (i.e. Isaiah’s “vision of all” or Nephi’s “from the beginning of the world to the ending thereof”) are finally read, it can only serve as an intermediate step, a stepping stone as it were, toward a greater understanding of reading God’s revelations. Even as it reveals, the book keeps us aware of the still slumbering dead, us as perhaps the still slumbering reader, and the sealed book still awaiting translation.
Verses 10 and 11 seems to clarify the distinction between two kinds of sealed books and aid us in understanding this idea. One book is sealed because of pride, wickedness, wisdom of the world. This is the portion of the book given to “another” (the footnote in verse 10 brings us to JSH 1:65 in reference to the Anton incident) but it is not the sealed book that holds “all things from the foundation of the world unto the end thereof” (10). One way of understanding this might be that there is wickedness that prevents some from accepting the divinity of the Book of Mormon and there is the wickedness endemic to the human condition that prevents all of us, even those who accept the Book of Mormon, from being ready to “read by the power of Christ” to the point that “all things shall be revealed until the children of men, which ever have been among the children of men” (11). Can we assume that as long as history remains a mystery to us, as long as all we can produce is fragmented knowledge, it is a sign that we remain in this general state of insufficient grace to be able to read the meaning of all things?
Verse 12 adds an interesting twist. The verse declares that when the book is delivered to “the man of whom I have spoken” (surely, Joseph Smith, no?), “the book shall be hid from the eyes of the world.” Such hiding was earlier spoken of in somewhat more allegorical terms (the slumbering, blind, and dreaming wicked who can’t understand God’s revelations), but here it seems both allegorical and literal: “the eyes of none shall behold it save it be that three witnesses shall behold it.” What seems especially rich about this figural and literal blindess, this figural and literal revelation is that it posits the possibility that these are false dichotomies. A refusal to read a sealed book, on the one hand, is here contrasted with the blessing of seeing the physical plates. The former position is based on a kind of ultimate faith in rationalism to the point that it refuses empirical evidence. The latter on a faith in revelation to the point that it is rewarded with empirical evidence. The authentication of the translation, in other words, will not come from worldly wisdom but from empirical experience, albeit facilitated and supplemented “by the power of God.” The Book of Mormon, although suggestive of God’s many mysteries, is not shrouded in mysticism. It is a book that promises revelation and delivers on its promise. The only caveat being that we should be careful not to overstate what we know, since the great allegorical book of all things from the foundation of the world remains at least partially if not still substantially sealed.