2 Ne 12:1-24:32
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Scope of page. Second Nephi 12-24 contains Nephi's quotation of Isaiah 2-14. This wiki page is not intended, however, to address Isaiah. This page is intended only to address Nephi's use of Isaiah. Readers may want to consult the wiki pages that address Isaiah 2-14 before reading the portion of this wiki page that addresses Second Nephi 12-24. Contributors are likewise asked to respect this distinction. The idea is that discussion of a passage should be concentrated in a single place, and that the best place for a discussion of Isaiah is on the wiki pages that directly address Isaiah.
Relationship to Second Nephi. The relationship of Chapters 12-24 to the rest of Second Nephi is discussed at Second Nephi.
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- 2 Ne 12:16: Comparison with MT and LXX. See "Upon All the Ships of the Sea, and Upon All the Ships of Tarshish": Revisiting 2 Nephi 12:16 and Isaiah 2:16 by Dana M. Pike and David R. Seely in Journal of Book of Mormon Studies, v. 14(2), 2005, pp. 12-25. Pike and Seely do not really come to any conclusion except that Sperry's conjecture that the LXX and MT each missed a different line in an original Hebrew text overlooks several other possibilities which are just as plausible. (The first two lines here in Nephi represent the LXX and the MT respectively, while the third line preserves the second line in the KJV, which newer translations dispute by changing "pleasant pictures" with something like "display of crafts" which is closer to the LXX.)
- 2 Ne 18:16-17: Testimony. The word "testimony" (along with other words from the "court") is absolutely central to Nephi's understanding of his own record. If there is anything like a precedent for his usage—if there is any predecessor he might have looked to—it would be Isaiah, and in this passage, Nephi provides his readers with precisely the passage that might have been behind his thinking. It is necessary, then, to look at this passage in some detail if one would hope for an understanding of the role testimony plays in Nephi's writings.
- On what is now perhaps a rather common reading, these verses articulate the foundation of the practice of writing up prophecy. Since Isaiah (along with Amos and Hosea) seem to have been the first "writing prophets" in the Old Testament tradition, there is reason to ask when and how the practice of writing up prophecy ever began in the first place. If these verses are taken in connection with Isa 6:9ff, they may provide an explanation of the phenomenon (one that is echoed again in Isa 29 and thus taken up by Nephi at great length in 2 Ne 26-27). In Isa 6, the Lord issues His specific call to Isaiah, and the prophet is told explicitly to harden the hearts of the people so that they will reject his message. Though the passage does not fall well on modern ears, the idea that the Lord would harden the hearts of people for His own purposes is certainly attested abundantly in the Old Testament. Whether that means that Isaiah simply inherited a particular worldview, or whether that means that the Lord is simply not modern (or whether that means that the Lord speaks to each people in their own language and according to their own cultural assumptions), Isaiah's call to harden hearts and so to be rejected turns out to be central to his message. It is echoed quite clearly here in verse 17: "the Lord, that hideth his face from the house of Jacob."
- The context into which this characterization is set is vastly important: chapters 7-12 of Isaiah (17-22 of 2 Nephi) may be taken as one rather lengthy oracle against Assyria in the context of the Syro-Ephraimite war. The oracle, it would appear, was essentially rejected (according to the task given to Isaiah in his original call). And as a consequence of this rejection, Isaiah commands (is commanded?) to "bind up the testimony, seal the law among my disciples." That is, because the oracle has been rejected in the present, Isaiah seals up the text to be delivered to another time: it will only be believed in retrospect, and so it is to be sealed up until the events have come to pass without question. If this is what is at work in this verse, it is quite clear that it is predicated upon the hardness of the hearts of the people: it is their rejection of the oracle that leads to its being written down and sealed up for a future generation. In other words, if it were not for the hardness of the hearts of the people, the oracle would not be written up at all, since its oral deliverance would have been sufficient for any real purpose. It is Isaiah's peculiar call to condemn that opens up the possibility of the written oracle.
- The consequences of this shift in the nature of the prophetic office are enormous. By writing up a prophecy—as commanded by the Lord—its words suddenly must be understood to outstrip the event according to which they were spoken. In that the prophecy is to be read by a later people, it is, in the very act of its being written, made the foundation of typological reading: the past is suddenly meant to be recoverable by a future people. Not only this, but the prophet himself is thereby turned to the future: Isaiah is no longer focused only or even primarily on delivering the immediate commandments of God to the people, but he anticipates events that are still to happen, because he anticipates people that are not yet in his own time in existence. And it is in this context that Isaiah's use of the word "testimony" must be considered.
- First things first, the Hebrew word in the Isaiah text for this passage is te'udah, a word that appears only three times in the Old Testament, two of which appearances are in this very chapter. It should be noted, at the same time, that the word is closely related to the very frequent 'eduth also translated "testimony." Given the relative dating of the Isaiah text (it was written at some point during the eighth century B.C.), most Hebrew scholars are unwilling to read this word as so closely related to what is now called the Law of Moses than would be suggested by a naive word study: many scholars do not believe that the Law came to be a Law in the sense it is often regarded until well after the time of Isaiah of Jerusalem. Thus, it is best not to read into the word "testimony," nor into the parallel "law," anything like a reference to the Law of Moses (the complete dearth of Mosaic material in Isaiah strengthens this historical reading). And yet, here in the Book of Mormon, it is not clear whether such comments would still hold: the Nephites might very easily have found a reference to the Law of Moses in this passage; that is, unless there is some far more obvious way to read the text. The question, then: is there some far more obvious way to read the text?
- It turns out that there may be a far more obvious way to read the text, or at least that some important themes that appear in Nephi's record point to another way of reading the text. Nephi only uses the word "testimony" four times on his own (that is, besides in quoting this passage from Isaiah), but they are almost all taken up with the question of a text that is written and sealed up for a later day. In fact, usually, the word has reference to a text that is sealed up in a way that it will be brought to bear on some kind of judgment. This emphasis on the courtroom opens up a very possible other reading of the present passage: one immediately notices that both "testimony" and "law" are courtroom words, and might point specifically to judgment. In this regard, the importance of verse 20 begins to emerge (though it will have to be considered on its own below): there it is precisely the law and the testimony that become players in a vital judgment. A far more obvious way to read the text, then: in terms of the courtroom, and in terms of a sealed up record that is to play a part there.
- What, then, is at play in these two verses?
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