2 Ne 25:1-8
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Verses 1-8: Regarding the "Keys" to Studying Isaiah
Verses 1-8 here are often said to contain the "keys" to the study of Isaiah—the idea being that what Nephi here says about his own understanding of Isaiah can inform those who struggle to make sense of Isaiah's writings. There are different ways of formulating these "keys," but most follow a pattern something like the following:
- (1) One should seek to "know ... concerning the manner of prophesying among the Jews" (verse 1), concerning "the things of the Jews" (verse 5), and concerning "the regions round about" Jerusalem (verse 6).
- (2) One should seek to be "filled with the spirit of prophecy" (verse 4).
- (3) One should recognize the benefit of living "in the days that the prophecies of Isaiah [are] fulfilled" (verse 7).
In a word, one should cultivate both appropriate secular knowledge and a deep spiritual capacity, as well as recognize that one might be living through the fulfillment of the prophecy.
The identification of these "keys" is not without merit, but many crucial questions remain unanswered: What is the manner of prophesying among the Jews, and how does one learn about it? What is meant by the things of the Jews, and where does one begin to study them? What is one supposed to learn about Jerusalem's environs, and how is such knowledge supposed to help in the work of interpretation? What does it mean to be filled with the spirit of prophecy, and how exactly does having this gift make it easier to make sense of Isaiah? What exactly does Nephi mean by the fulfillment of Isaianic prophecy, and how is one to identify events that fulfill prophecy when most prophecies appear rather vague?
But not only does this common approach to these verses fail to answer the basic questions that would allow one to use the identified "keys," it overlooks most of what Nephi says in this crucial passage, all of which sheds a good deal of light on the way Nephi understands Isaiah. Rather than extracting from these verses a few "keys" to making sense of Isaiah, then, it would be best to work systematically through the text with the following question: "What is Nephi saying here, and why is it important?" The commentary below exhibits such an approach.
Verses 1-8: Structure
Verses 1-8 collectively introduce Nephi's prophecy beginning in verse 9. This introduction is, however, immensely complex, weaving together passages in which Nephi addresses two distinct audiences. This double address is crucial for Nephi's larger project. A whole series of details in Nephi's record suggests that he only came in the course of writing it to recognize that his writings would eventually circulate among a people other than his own immediate descendants. Earlier parts of his record (in particular 1 Ne 6 and 9), as well as what seems to be the earliest word from the Lord concerning his task with the record (found in 2 Ne 5:30-33) suggest that he began his project with a rather limited audience in mind: only his own people. Beginning especially with 1 Ne 19:18-19—a passage that evidence suggests was written a good while later than 1 Ne 1-18—Nephi begins to recognize the possibility that his record will circulate among other parts of the house of Israel. Still later, in 2 Ne 25:21-22, Nephi explicitly states that he had received by that time a promise that other nations would eventually possess his record. Finally, by the time he wrote the last chapter of his record, Nephi not only writes to all the ends of the earth but clearly associates his own record with the promised book-to-come witnessed in his apocalyptic vision (of 1 Nephi 11-14): see especially 2 Ne 33:13. The present passage with its double address fits into this complex trajectory: Nephi seems in these verses to be trying to talk both to the audience he had always assumed in producing his record, as well as the other audience of whose existence he has only recently become aware.
Here one might wildly speculate about the redactional process through which the present text took shape. Warning: wild speculation follows! Or really: responsible exegesis, but exegesis asks the kinds of questions that Latter-day Saints call wildly speculative.
(1) In 2 Ne 5:30, Nephi records what he describes as the actual words of the divine commandment originally given to him to produce the small plates: "Make other plates; and thou shalt engraven many things upon them which are good in my sight, for the profit of thy people." It might well be asked how correctly the actual, original communication is here recorded, but there is no particular reason to doubt that the words are accurately reported—and there may be, as will be seen, some actual evidence that they are accurate (the evidence is primarily of the following nature: if Nephi were here giving us a doctored account, he would likely say something different, given other details in the record).
In this earliest word concerning the project of the small plates, there are three emphases. First, the differentiation between the large and small plates is internal to this original commandment: these plates are other than the large plates by then already produced. Second, the contents of the record are described as "many things . . . which are good in my [the Lord's] sight," a rather humble description given what Nephi will go on to say of this record's makeup (in 1 Ne 19). Third, the only mentioned audience for the plates is "thy [Nephi's] people"; nothing is said about latter-day readers, about Lamanites, about other Israelites, etc.
(2) It is difficult to determine what constitutes the next datable statement about the nature of the record. The most likely . . . .
Signaling this in particular is the phrase "speak somewhat" in the first part of verse 1. This phrase is one Nephi uses elsewhere in his record with a very specific intention: it marks moments where Nephi steps back from his work in order to say something about his writing project. (See, for example, 1 Ne 10:1: "wherefore, to proceed with mine account, I must speak somewhat of the things of my father, and also of my brethren.")
From this it seems clear why Nephi says he speaks about what he has written: speaking, in this usage, means a short note given directly to the reader about his project.
This, though, leaves the interpreter with the following question: Whom is Nephi addressing in his editorial aside? The whole of his record, he usually claims, is addressed to his own people, but here he talks about his people in the third person, as if he were explaining something about his people to someone else. Interestingly, within chapters, Nephi will come to recognize clearly that his record will eventually end up in the hands of readers other than his own people. Is it that a kind of dawning recognition of this other audience is drawing Nephi's attention to the necessity of explaining his record to his non-Nephite readers?
Does he do this anywhere else?
At any rate, that this possible tangle between Lehite and non-Lehite readers is crucially focused here on Nephi's relationship to Isaiah. Indeed, it is almost as if it is precisely Nephi's attempt to tackle Isaiah that draws his attention to the strange relationship between his two audiences—one of which Nephi seems only just to have begun to recognize as existing at this point.
Verses 1b-8 exhibit a structure that turns out to be crucial to the interpretation of the passage. Stated in broad terms, verses 1b-5a are—both in general content and in many isolated turns of phrase—repeated entirely in verses 5b-8. Set side by side, the two "halves" of verses 1b-8 look as follows (bolded words and phrases have either a strict or a rough parallel in the juxtaposed block of text; italicized words and phrases have an antithesis in the juxtaposed block of text):
For behold, Isaiah spake many things and there is none other people that which were hard for many of my people to understand the things which were spoken understand; for they know not concerning unto the Jews like unto them, save it be that the manner of prophesying among the they are taught after the manner of the Jews. things of the Jews. For I, Nephi, have not taught them many But behold, I, Nephi, have not taught my things concerning the manner of the Jews; children after the manner of the Jews; but for their works were works of darkness, and behold, I, of myself, have dwelt at their doings were doings of abomination. Jerusalem, wherefore I know concerning the regions round about; Wherefore, I write unto my people, unto all and I have made mention unto my children those that shall receive hereafter these concerning the judgments of God, which things which I write, that they may know the hath come to pass among the Jews, unto my judgments of God, that they come upon all children, according to all that which nations, according to the word which he Isaiah hath spoken, and I do not write hath spoken. them. Wherefore, hearken, O my people, which But behold, I proceed with mine own are of the house of Israel, and give ear unto prophecy, according to my plainness; in my words; for because the words of Isaiah the which I know that no man can err; are not plain unto you, nevertheless they are nevertheless, in the days that the plain unto all those that are filled with the prophecies of Isaiah shall be fulfilled men spirit of prophecy. But I give unto you a shall know of a surety, at the times when prophecy, according to the spirit which is they shall come to pass. in me; wherefore I shall prophesy according to the plainness which hath been with me from the time that I came out from Jerusalem with my father; for behold, my soul delighteth in plainness unto my people, that they may learn. Yea, and my soul delighteth in the words Wherefore, they are of worth unto the of Isaiah, for I came out from Jerusalem, children of men, and he that supposeth that and mine eyes hath beheld the things of the they are not, unto them will I speak Jews, and I know that the Jews do particularly, and confine the words unto understand the things of the prophets, mine own people; for I know that they shall be of great worth unto them in the last days; for in that day shall they understand them; wherefore, for their good have I written them.
- Now I, Nephi, do speak somewhat concerning the words which I have written, which have been spoken by the mouth of Isaiah.
With this first sentence (which is not a part of the structure outlined above), Nephi introduces what follows. For the most part, it is a straightforward introduction: Nephi wants to talk a little bit about the "Isaiah chapters" he has just inserted into his record. There are, though, some words which deserve some closer attention: "speak," "words," "written," and "spoken."
Here Nephi's point seems to be that he wants any future readers to know that many of his people had a hard time with Isaiah, and though he does not want to teach of the Jew's darkness, he will write to make sure the judgments of God are known.
Secondly, it should noted exactly when this "aside" ends and when he picks back up in his normal writing. Verses 1 and 2 are clearly an explanation directly to a reader interested in his editorial plans, what what of verse 3? Nephi does use the first person present indicative: "Wherefore, I write unto my people," but he is still referring to his people and "all those" who read his words in the third person. Only in verse 4 does Nephi return to call his people's attention: "Wherefore, hearken, O my people"). It thus seems that verse 3 is also an explanation of his plans, and so his "speaking somewhat" occupies verses 1-3.
If this reading is correct, and verses 1-3 are outside the general writings addressed to his people, then perhaps it calls for some questions regarding the strong parallel structure of verses 1b-3 with verses 5b-6. If verses 1b-3 are, so to speak, external to Nephi's actual discourse while verses 5b-6 are, so to speak, internal to his discourse, then perhaps this explains many of the differences that make them largely antithetical, despite the many similarities between them. Moreover, the fact that Nephi begins his address to his people in verse 4 may help to make sense of why the strong parallels between 1b-3 and 5b-6 are somewhat attenuated in the pairing of verses 4-5a and 7-8: Nephi is less concerned to produce parallels internal to his discourse than he is to produce parallels between his discourse and his editorial aside.
On the other hand, we may choose to look at verse 6 as another parenthetical aside. Perhaps by the end of verse 5, Nephi felt he needed to make it clear why he knew that the Jews understood the things of the prophets, but why his people did not. In Verses 5-6 Nephi situates himself between the world of the Jews and the world of the new Nephite people. It seemed in verse 4 that Nephi was about to begin his prophecy, but before he could begin he needed to rehearse his delight in Isaiah, his experience with the Jews and with his people, and his unusual place between them. Verse 6 very clearly rehearses the same goal that verse 3 stated: that his people may know about/concerning the "judgments of God." Verse 7 will go on to say "I proceed with mine own prophecy" - as if to say, "Okay, now I'm really going to start." Verse 7 will of course also parallel verse 4's discussion of plainness, as noted above. To begin a topic and follow out a tangent is not an unusual Book of Mormon pattern. See for example Alma 32, where verses 18, 21, and 26 each seem to start or restart a discussion of faith.
Reading verses 5-6 as another aside would only serve to strengthen, and perhaps largely explain, the parallels in verses 1b-3 and 5b-6.
Assuming all the foregoing to be a move in the right direction, it will be necessary to ask what Nephi is actually saying about the role of Isaiah in his record, but that will have to come in the commentary below.
Here, though, it is necessary to deal with one other point concerning all this written/spoken/words business. What should be read into Nephi's description of his writing so many words that were spoken by Isaiah? Why does he attribute to himself, but never to Isaiah, the act of writing, Isaiah being described only as speaking? (This question is especially poignant, given Isaiah's systematic exposition of the prophetic turn to writing in Isaiah 6-8 and Isaiah 29.) Further, what should be made of the use of the word "words" here? Note that in chapters 26-27, Nephi will use "words" to mean something like the "translatable intellectual content" of a text, opposing it to "book," by which he has reference to the actual physical medium in which the text was originally inscribed. Is something similar at work here?
- For behold, Isaiah spake many things which were hard for many of my people to understand.
Here Nephi actually begins to describe his people's relationship to Isaiah, and here it is that the interpreter can begin to divine, from what Nephi says, how Nephi conceptualizes the other audience he seems here to be addressing. Interestingly, in verse 8, Nephi will describe the other audience's relationship to Isaiah to his Lehite audience. Consequently, there is a crucial connection between verses 1 and 8, the one describing the one audience to the other, and the other describing the other audience to the one. Thus verses 1b-8, as laid out in the structure above and clearly isolable as a pericope, begins and ends with this description of one people's relationship to Isaiah to another people.
Now, concerning what Nephi actually says here, it is usually assumed that Nephi's people in general could not understand Isaiah in general, but Nephi does not actually say that. Rather he says that "many" of his people had difficulty with "many things" written by Isaiah. It would seem that there were some who could make general sense of Isaiah, and that there were at least parts of Isaiah that most of his people could understand.
One might ask whether this limitation on misunderstanding implies that there were some among Nephi's people—perhaps those few who had spent time in Jerusalem?—who did know "the manner of prophesying among the Jews." Of course, it has to be asked—as it will be below—what exactly is meant by "the manner of prophesying among the Jews." And perhaps there simply were some Nephites who understood Isaiah's message without knowing this "manner."
What, in turn, might all this imply about what Nephi goes on to say? Does he show us a way to read Isaiah without being taught the "manner of the Jews," so that we will be like those among his people who could understand them? Or do we return to the first assumption, that these people who understood must have been those who were older and spent some time in Jerusalem or otherwise understood the manner of prophesying among the Jews?
- for they know not concerning the manner of prophesying among the Jews.
What is meant by "the manner of prophesying among the Jews"? Does Nephi himself provide any clues to its interpretation?
There is a possibility that Nephi is providing an explanation of this phrase when he goes on to speak, in strikingly similar language, of "the manner of the Jews" (verse 2). However, since this "manner" is there explicitly connected with "works of darkness" and "doings of abomination," should such a connection not be ruled out? Another possibility is that Nephi is providing an explanation of the phrase "manner of prophesying" when he goes on to speak, still further along (verse 4), of being "filled with the spirit of prophecy." But since such a connection would imply that only those possessing the "spirit of prophecy" understand the prophets, and since the text (verse 5) goes on to claim that "the Jews do understand the things of the prophets," should this possible connection not in turn be ruled out simply because Nephi would certainly not want to assert that all the Jews have the spirit of prophecy?
Following out the first possibility, there may actually be reasons to connect the manner of prophesying in verse 1 with the works of darkness in verse 2. At least one commentator (Hugh Nibley) has directly suggested that "the manner of prophesying among the Jews" indeed refers to "works of darkness." He points to practices Israel borrowed from its neighbors: soothsaying, divination, and the like. On this interpretation, Nephi is not suggesting that "the manner of prophesying among the Jews" is a good one, but rather an apostate one. Isaiah would be read then as responding to those practices. If a reader is unfamiliar with those practices, then it will be hard to understand what Isaiah is condemning.
The strength of this first approach should not be overlooked. In the chapters Nephi quotes from Isaiah one can find many references to these kinds of practices: Judah is "replenished from the east, and hearken unto soothsayers like the Philistines" (2 Nephi 12:6); to be removed from Judah is "the [false] prophet" (13:2); "Wo unto them that call evil good, and good evil, that put darkness for light, and light for darkness, that put bitter for sweet, and sweet for bitter!" (15:20); the people of Judah counsel: "Seek unto them that have familiar spirits, and unto wizards that peep and mutter—should not a people seek unto their God for the living to hear from the dead?" (18:19); to be cut off is "the prophet that teacheth lies" (19:15). (Note that Nephi will go on in chapter 26 to provide a creative reworking of another such reference, turning false prophecy into true prophecy.) There was certainly among the people of Jerusalem a "manner of prophesying," then, that could be categorized as a "work of darkness."
There are of course other possible approaches to this phrase in verse 1. Perhaps when Nephi says, "I know that the Jews do understand the things of the prophets, and there is none other people that understand the things which were spoken unto the Jews like unto them, save it be that they are taught after the manner of the things of the Jews" (verse 5), he means that the Jewish prophets, or the righteous Jews, understand the things of the prophets. There are those in Judah with this same spirit of prophecy, which is a gift given to this people when they are righteous. Thus, teaching someone "after the manner of the Jews" might mean to teach them of the covenants, join with them in worshiping God, and then receive the spirit as well.
However, Nephi goes on in verse 6 to explain that in part he can understand Isaiah because he knows the "regions round about," and perhaps this is one of the reasons the Jews understand the things of the prophets. In any case, there are connections between verse 5 and verse 6 that need to be further explored before a definitive connection between verse 1 and verse 5 could be established.
- Works of darkness.
Nephi explains that the reason he has not taught his people too much about the Jews is because their works were "works of darkness, and their doings were doings of abominations."
This is similar to a later situation the Nephities would face. When Alma passes the sacred records to his son Helaman, he gives him these instructions:
"And now, my son, I command you that ye retain all their oaths, and their covenants, and their agreements in their secret abominations; yea, and all their signs and their wonders ye shall keep from this people, that they know them not, lest peradventure they should fall into darkness also and be destroyed." (Verse 27)
Alma calls their works "darkness" and "abominations," which are the same words Nephi uses to describe the works and doings of the Jews. And in both cases, there is something kept back from the people being taught.
In Nephi's case, it seems he taught his people little or nothing concerning these works, while Alma actually instructs Helaman to teach about these works, just not their oaths:
"Therefore ye shall keep these secret plans of their oaths and their covenants from this people, and only their wickedness and their murders and their abominations shall ye make known unto them; and ye shall teach them to abhor such wickedness and abominations and murders; and ye shall also teach them that these people were destroyed on account of their wickedness and abominations and their murders." (Verse 29)
Interestingly, in both 2 Ne 25 and Alma 37, we find discussion of typology.
Nephi says that he prophecies "according to the plainness which hath been with [him] from the time [he] came out from Jerusalem." It is interesting that this plainness "has been with [him]" since Nephi left Jerusalem but not before. Compare Alma 13:23. There Alma identifies one of the reasons that glad tidings are declared by Angels to them "in plain terms" is because they are wanderers in a strange land. It seems that the Lord has chosen to give the people of the Book of Mormon plainness in a way he didn't choose to give it to those in Jerusalem.
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- Verse 2: Works of darkness. Whose works were works of darkness, the Jews' or Nephi's people? If the Jews, why couldn't Nephi teach just the "manner of prophesying among the Jews" (v. 1) without teaching the works of darkness?
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- 2 Ne 25:1: Why does Isaiah seem so difficult? See this comment by Jacob at the New Cool Thang blog asking about the contrast between this explicit explanation about the difficulty of Isaiah and the implicit explanation given in Isa 6:9-10.
- 2 Ne 25:4: See this post for speculation that this view of Nephi's leads to less apocalyptic visions being included in the Book of Mormon.
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