Sunday, February 24, 2008

5 LDS Interpretations of the Isaiah Passages that Should Not be Perpetuated

I promised some posts on upcoming Book of Mormon Sunday School lessons. But I have to warn you, I've been in a blue funk lately. So I suspect my thoughts are neither inspiring nor fit for Sunday School consumption. But maybe it will help you know what not to say.

LDS Sunday School students will soon take a quick leap through 13 chapters of Isaiah which are quoted by Nephi in 2nd Nephi chapters 12-24. All too often, some uniquely Mormon interpretations are given to these chapters which merit a critical analysis. In this post I present five Mormonisms which I believe hinder a deeper and more accurate understanding of Isaiah's writings.

1. 2 Nephi 12:2,3 Popular LDS commentary on this verse identifies it as Isaiah's vision of people from many lands coming to Salt Lake City, Utah.

Many prophecies of Isaiah are dual and can be applied to more than one time, situation or people. I am aware that latter-day prophets and apostles have related this verse to the Salt Lake temple or even to the Conference Center from which the word of the Lord is issuing forth in these days. However, if we insist too strongly on this Mormon-centric view, we can miss the primary application which this verse has to the millennial reign of the Messiah. The word "mountain" as used in the Bible is a metaphor for "nation," "government," or "political system." In verses 2 and 3 Isaiah is speaking of the millennial condition when Christ shall establish the political Kingdom of God upon the earth. This will be established "in the top of the mountains," or in other words "as the head of the nations."

2. 2 Nephi 12:3 Isaiah wrote that the word of the Lord will come from Jerusalem, and the law will come from Zion, the New Jerusalem, located in Jackson County, Missouri. There will be two distinct centers of influence for God's people.

This may be, but verse 3 should not be used as a proof-text. Here we have a synonymous chiastic parallel where

the Law = the Word of the Lord, and
Zion = Jerusalem (one and the same)

The chiastic structure of this phrase indicates that Isaiah equated Zion with Jerusalem (the one located in Israel!) If we accept this, we will be able to learn more about Zion as it relates to the ancient City of David.

3. 2 Nephi 12:9 In the Book of Mormon, verse 9 is clarified by adding the word "not" to the following statement: "And the mean man boweth [not] down and the great man humbleth himself [not], therefore forgive him not."

This verse actually makes much more sense in its original context, without the extra "not" added in the Book of Mormon version. Verse 8 speaks of idols which are found throughout the land. And the mean (common) man and the great (important) man boweth down (to these idols). This version makes more sense coming as it does right after the description of people worshipping idols, the work of their own hands.

4. 2 Nephi 12:13-17 Some Mormons still insist that this passage is an example of the restoration in the Book of Mormon of passages that were lost in the Old Testament. As noted in footnote 16a, “The Greek (Septuagint) has ‘ships of the sea.’ The Hebrew has ‘ships of Tarshish.’ The Book of Mormon has both, showing that the brass plates had lost neither phrase.”

Pike and Seely have shown the challenges of accepting this interpretation. I love the poetry of the passage and find that the addition of the extra phrase and other interjected words spoils the beauty of the chiastic tripled bicola. Isaiah used poetic conventions frequently to emphasize his points. The Book of Mormon addition does not enhance the poetic structure of the passage, but instead inhibits it. The Greek "ships of the sea" and the Hebrew "ships of Tarshish" are probably different translations of one original phrase and it is not necessary or preferable to include both. Observe the perfection of the Masoretic text with the pattern of w- (conjunction) + al (preposition "upon") followed by kol- ("all/every") and then two words (here in English translation):
For the day of the LORD of hosts shall be

upon every one that is proud and lofty,
and upon every one that is lifted up; and he shall be brought low:

and upon all the cedars of Lebanon, that are high and lifted up,
and upon all the oaks of Bashan,

and upon all the high mountains,
and upon all the hills that are lifted up,

and upon every high tower,
and upon every fenced wall,

and upon all the ships of Tarshish,
and upon all pleasant pictures (fine craft)

and the loftiness of man shall be bowed down,
and the haughtiness of men shall be made low;

and the LORD alone shall be exalted in that day.

(if all this fascinates you, there is a well-reasoned apologetic view here. But I stand by my opinion.)

5. 2 Nephi 14:1 The Mormon speculation on this verse goes as follows: With so many men killed in war, righteous single priesthood holders are in short supply. Thus, plural marriage is reinstituted, with many women stating they will support themselves in order to receive priesthood covenant protection.

My examination of the Hebrew of this verse makes me confident in translating "one man" as "a certain man." The verse thus teaches that in the latter day seven women (symbolic number of completeness, denotes the covenant people) shall take hold of a certain man (guess who that would be?) and ask him "let us be called by thy name," which will take away their reproach (effects of atonement). In my view this verse is Messianic and has nothing whatsoever to do with polygamy.

Update: Our SS teacher gave 2 of these very interpretations while presenting the lesson! How about yours??



ldahospud said...

Awesome post. Seriously, Roy, once you get finished Behind the Infamous Veil, come and be bored in Idaho. I'm sure I can find a V-town close to me. I need you to be my SS teacher.

Anonymous said...

Your view of Isa. 4:1 makes sense, but so does the the traditional one too. If there's a scarcity of men due to war, you just have to add up the math to figure out what to do next.

At the end of the War of the Triple Alliance (Paraguay against Argentina, Uruguay and Brazil, 1864-1870), there were just 28,000 men approx. left in that nation after the war, out of a post war population of 211,000. How did they deal with that? You guessed right - polygamy.

Stephen said...

let us be called by thy name," which will take away their reproach (effects of atonement). In my view this verse is Messianic and has nothing whatsoever to do with polygamy.

Which is why he says yes right afterwards?

I think the actual context reveals something, maybe the Messiah is going to refuse them, maybe it isn't Messianic.

Steven B said...

I must chuckle and mention that I did in fact propose, while teaching a sunday school class, that the Zion/Jerusalem relationship might indeed be simply an example of typical synonymous parallelism. In response, one student stood and shouted at the top of his lungs, with veins bulging from his neck, how apostate I was to even suggest such an interpretation. The next week, a member of the bishopric was sitting in my classroom.

That said, however, I think there are a couple of ways to look at the passage.

First of all, the chiastic structure is probably significant. It does stand out from the surrounding verses, which all have a repetitive (abc/a'b'c) structure.

I tend to think that by placing Zion at the front of the verse and Jerusalem at the end, Isaiah wanted to place emphasis on the location, rather than on the Torah/Word of the Lord.

And it may be that in stressing the location Isaiah was equating Zion with Jerusalem.

However, it is relatively common in biblical poetry to use a chiastic arrangement (abc/c'b'a) when contrasting ideas. The turning point usually becomes the point of contrast. If that is the case here, the preceding verses and the following verses may also figure into that contrast.

So, if Isaiah intended to make a distinction between Zion and Jerusalem (employing a chiasm as a signal to the reader), then it would follow that the teaching (teach ways / walk in paths) and Torah would flow from Zion, but the living word--even rule of the Lord (judge nations / rebuke people) would issue from Jerusalem. And here Torah and Judgement would be likewise be considered distinct.

If, on the other hand, we choose to consider the chiastic arrangement as merely adding variety, then we should still not be tempted to think of parallelism as "saying the same thing twice." It is important to consider how the "synonymous" elements of a parallel phrase differ, rather than merely equate. And in saying this I don't mean that we should necessarily think two different Jerusalems here. Rather, we discover an emphatic element, where the second colon seconds and "goes one better" to make a sharper statement (see James L. Kugel, The Idea of Biblical Poetry).

To paraphrase:

Not only will he teach us of his ways /
But we will walk in his footsteps

For, from Zion will go forth Torah /
Even the very word of the Lord from right here in Jerusalem

Bored in Vernal said...

Stephen, I don't understand your comment. Is there something about the context that implies the Messiah might refuse their proposal?

Steven B., Good points.
It is important to consider how the "synonymous" elements of a parallel phrase differ...where the second colon seconds and "goes one better" to make a sharper statement
Awesome. I read a similar article (here's the link) and I loved how it helped me interpret parallelism in a new way.

Ellen said...

Thanks BiV, awesome post. Your insights are very helpful in capturing the beauty and poetry of Isaiah.

Mormon Heretic said...

Thanks for you insights. Can we have an online SS class? It would be much more stimulating than my class.

Kari said...


What I great post. You put into words what I had long thought about this chapter of Isaiah, and how mormons tend to interpret Isaiah in general.

Our instructor raised two of the issues; temple in the mountaintops as SLC, and the "ships of the sea" as proof that JS wasn't making stuff up.

john f. said...

BiV, I understand that tendency that motivates this post but must say, at least with reference to the "in the mountaintops" point that the traditional LDS interpretation is perfectly valid. That there might be other interpretations that you like better doesn't mean that LDS authorities and commentators have been wrong in seeing Isaiah's words being fulfilled in the last days through the establishment of this Church and its priesthood.

Bored in Vernal said...

JohnF, thanks for the comment. In regards to 2 Nephi 12:2,3 I am not saying that popular LDS commentary is not valid, just that members often seize upon this interpretation and miss the subtler meanings. A wider interpretation of "mountain" helps to clarify other passages in the OT and is necessary to a more complete understanding of the Millennium.

I hope you don't think that I take the position that "LDS authorities and commentators have been wrong in seeing Isaiah's words being fulfilled in the last days through the establishment of this Church and its priesthood." To the contrary! I believe strongly that Isaiah's words are being fulfilled through the establishment of this Church & priesthood. I just hate seeing the book of Isaiah given such short shrift throughout the Church.