Abide: Isaiah 58-66
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Today we are joined by Dr. Joseph Spencer, a philosopher, theologian and Assistant Professor of Ancient Scripture here at Brigham Young University. Dr. Spencer is the editor of the Journal of Book of Mormon Studies and a leading scholar of the Book of Mormon. He is a prolific author, and among his recent works are The Vision of All: Twenty-five Lectures on Isaiah in Nephi’s Record (Kofford, 2016) and 1st Nephi: A Brief Theological Introduction, published by the Maxwell Institute in 2020. He has recently completed a monograph on Isaiah in the Book of Mormon, which is currently under review with Oxford University Press.
How many times have you gotten to the extensive sections on Isaiah in the Book of Mormon and stopped a reading, or skimmed over, or skipped over entirely? I confess that I have done this myself. And I’ve also seen new investigators, and new members of the church also struggle even if they came from a background where they read the Hebrew Bible, or the Christian Old Testament. So how can we get to the point where we are getting more out of these sections and fully appreciating the beauty that we can find there in, where the prophets of the Old Testament are speaking to us in our day in the Book of Mormon? We’ll talk with Professor Joseph M. Spencer, a professor of ancient scripture here at BYU to learn more about Isaiah and the Book of Mormon, and how it can benefit us in our personal study. My name is Joseph Stewart, I’m the public communication specialist of the Neal A. Maxwell Institute for religious scholarship at Brigham Young University. Kristian Heal is a research fellow at the Institute. Each week we discussed the week’s block of reading from the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints’s Come, Follow Me curriculum. We aren’t here to present a lesson but rather to hit on a few key themes from the Scripture block so as to help fulfill the Maxwell Institute’s mission to inspire and fortify Latter-day Saints and their testimonies of the restored gospel of Jesus Christ, and engage the world of religious ideas.
Today, we are joined by Dr. Joseph Spencer, a philosopher, theologian, and assistant professor of ancient scripture here at BYU. Dr. Spencer is the editor of the Journal of Book of Mormon Studies and a leading scholar of the Book of Mormon. He is a prolific author and among his recent works are The Vision of All: Twenty-five Lectures on Isaiah and Nephi’s Record from Kofford in 2016, and First Nephi: A Brief Theological Introduction published by the Maxwell Institute in 2020. He has recently completed a monograph on Isaiah and the Book of Mormon, which is currently under review with the University of Illinois Press. Dr. Spencer, welcome to the podcast.
Joseph Spencer: Thanks. Glad to be here.
Joseph Stuart: We are thrilled to have you here. And just want to start with a quick overview of what we’re looking at today, which is Isaiah 58-66. What’s happening in these chapters?
Joseph Spencer: A lot. These chapters are generally considered by biblical scholars to be aimed at, talking to, addressing the situation for Jews who have recently returned from Babylon in exile. So it addresses mostly, a lot of sort of social and political issues, right? Questions of inclusion and exclusion, who has access to divine things, and then reflects a great deal on just exactly how well Israel is handling this situation–what they can expect from God in the future.
Kristian Heal: So these chapters are not cited in the Book of Mormon at all, which is perhaps unsurprising given that scholars date them to a later point in time, after Lehi and his family left Jerusalem. So before we start digging into how the Book of Mormon interprets and reframes Isaiah, how do you see these chapters sort of having that function as they close this of the canonical Book of Isaiah?
Joseph Spencer: It’s worth saying that many scholars have pointed out that chapter one of the Book of Isaiah, and then chapter 65 and 66 of the Book of Isaiah, share a lot of language and a lot of phrasing. What scholars have then, as a result, suggest that is that whoever gives the book of Isaiah its final shape, right, and these books go through the hands of editors, and these kinds of things, has deliberately set bookends around the whole of the Book of Isaiah, so that you open with certain sort of overture notes, and then you come back to them in the end so that the whole book is framed by these very same concerns. Isaiah opens with this question of how has Judah survived these difficult times? And it ends on this note of, well, now we’re at the end of that, what does it look like, how are you surviving? But also, you’ve got questions in the chapters before chapter 65 and 66. And they pick up themes that have been running through the Book of Isaiah, maybe most at the front of the list there is chapter 60 and 61 and 62, you get a lot of language that’s shown up in Isaiah 49, which, incidentally, is one Nephi’s favorite passages from Isaiah in the Book of Mormon. But they show back up here and you get to kind of riffing on the same themes, what it means for kings and queens to be nursing fathers and nursing mothers. So yeah, as you come to these last chapters of the Book of Isaiah, you have a kind of full circle feeling about it, but you also have picking up the bits and pieces that have been running through the whole book.
Joseph Stuart: So in this block, again, chapters 58 through 66. Are there any highlights or phrases that you think we should pay particular attention to?
Joseph Spencer: So Latter-day Saints have a few passages here that they really love, right? And rightly, I mean, the probably the most famous passage here is the very beginning of Isaiah 61 because, of course, Jesus quotes it in the synagogue in Luke 4, as he begins his ministry in Luke’s gospel. So people tend to know that passage right, “the spirit of the Lord is upon me, has anointed me to preach good news to the poor,” etc, etc. There are other passages that Latter-day Saints tend to love here as well. Probably the most recent acquisition for Latter-day Saints from this part of Isaiah is Isaiah 58. Where we get not only is there talk about fasting, which I think has been a passage Latter-day Saints have pointed to often, but you also get a few verses here on the Sabbath that have become very strong focus with the emphasis we’ve put on the Sabbath in the church in the last few years. But there’s more than these passages that we just tend to notice. So for example, the passage about fasting, I think, is one of the richest passages in this whole section of Isaiah. And if it’s all right, I’ll actually just read it in a modern translation for a minute because it’s got some force that I think we sometimes miss when we quote it. We tend to just quote it and say, “Ah, see, we fast, we go to church, we give some fast offerings, we’ve got the message.” But in a good modern translation, the force of it really comes out. So this is from the New Revised Standard Version: “Why don’t we fast, but you do not see why humble ourselves, but you do not notice?” Here the people are crying out to God. And here’s the response through Isaiah. “Look, you serve your own interest on your fast day, and oppress all your workers. Look, you fast only to quarrel and to fight and to strike with a wicked fist. Such fasting as you do today will not make your voice heard on high. Is such the fast that I choose, a day to humble oneself? Is it the bow down the head like a bowl rush, and to lie in sackcloth and ashes? Will you call this a fast? A day acceptable to the Lord? Is not this the fast that I choose to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free and to break every yoke? Is it not to share your bread with the hungry and bring the homeless poor into your house. When you see the naked to cover them, and not to hide yourself from your own kin, then your light shall break forth like the dawn and your healing shall spring up quickly.” That’s got some real force, right? We tend to read and go, “Oh, we’re supposed to fast, give a little bit to the poor” and so on. But what this seems to be saying is, don’t let fasting become about your own obsessions, your own concerns. It’s not just a question of somehow you calling out God for your particular needs, we fast in order to feel the hunger that the poor feel, we fast in order to recognize that people are suffering and oppressed. And if we are fasting, and paying fast offerings, but not alleviating the suffering of those around us, we’re not fasting in any real way. I think there’s a lot of power in just reading these passages carefully.
Kristian Heal: That’s a lovely example of how these closing chapters really pick up the, or respond to the own theme of the Book of Isaiah of punishment, and then redemption, comfort and return. And now, in this state, there’s still work to do. There’s still fundamental principles to sort of understand about what God requires of us in our sort of discipleship and our desires to kind of follow him in righteousness.
Joseph Spencer: Yeah, “you’re redeemed” doesn’t mean it’s all over, “you’re redeemed” means it’s finally time to get to work, for him.
Kristian Heal: That’s fantastic. So let’s pivot from the Book of Isaiah to Isaiah in Nephi’s record. This doesn’t seem like the sort of the lowest hanging fruit in the study of the Book of Mormon. What drew you to study Isaiah in the Book of Mormon, particularly to Nephi’s use of Isaiah?
Joseph Spencer: Yeah, that’s a great question. I mean, it was a slow development from very early on in my studies, as an undergraduate student. I was interested in Isaiah, but mostly because I was learning enough Hebrew, literature, and enough biblical history to finally go “Oh, wow, maybe I can figure out this thing that everyone seems confused about.” But it wasn’t obvious that I had anything to say about any of that. The real trigger for me happened when I stumbled on structure in first and second Nephi, which I first stumbled on as an undergraduate. But I began to see that Nephi is telling us things about how he organizes his record. And once you take that as a kind of guide, and you see how he structures it, you start to realize that he’s privileging the Isaiah material above all else. We tend to see it as that unfortunate tack on the end of his project. But Nephi is setting it at the very center and heart of what he’s doing. And once I saw that, I felt like okay, I need to get to the bottom of this, what is he actually doing?
Joseph Stuart: That’s really interesting, because as you’re studying Hebrew and as you’re learning more about form, function and genre of literature, you’re able to read the Book of Mormon more effectively. Do you see scholarship on the Book of Isaiah shaping your reading of the Book of Mormon? Or maybe put another way, can Latter-day Saints learn to read restoration scripture, like the Book of Mormon, better by reading scholarship on the Old Testament?
Joseph Spencer: For sure, I mean, to take the second way of asking the question, there’s no doubt about it, right? We can learn all kinds of things. What’s striking about the case of Isaiah, though, is that it complicates that question, I think, a little. I think we have a tendency as Latter-day Saints, we got Nephi reading the book of Isaiah intensely; we’ve got Abinadi and the priests debating its meaning; we’ve got Christ himself saying, hey, you’ve got to read this. And so Latter-day Saints develop something like a complex about Isaiah, right? We start to feel guilty and as a result, bookstores can sell a lot of books trying to help you get through Isaiah. But what we all tend to be doing as a result is looking to understand Isaiah, per se, like what is Isaiah’s message? What is he actually saying? But ironically, reading the Book of Mormon, what we find there is actually that there isn’t one Isaiah there’s a bunch of Isaiahs. I don’t mean in terms of authorship here, I just mean that Isaiah means one thing in the Nephi’s hands, it means another thing in Jacob’s hands, it means another thing in Abinadi’s hands. The Book of Mormon, more than pointing us away to historically reconstructing Isaiah’s sort of over all and total meaning ought to suggest to us that this is a book to return to again and again, to let it mean new things in new contexts. And biblical scholarship can be super helpful there because it can give us more context and so on. But there’s a danger I think also the Book of Mormon is pointing to that we might use biblical scholarship to go okay, now I have the answer, now, I know what it means, when the Nephite prophets are themselves having something more like a conversation about a variety of meanings of the text.
Joseph Stuart: I think that it is important to remember, as you say, the many Isaiahs, or the many ways that Isaiah has been interpreted, and would recommend that listeners go to scriptures.byu.edu and choose a passage in Isaiah and see how different leaders of the church have used it in different contexts and interpreted it in different ways. All of course, inspired by the Spirit, but giving us models for how we can think creatively about the scriptures.
Kristian Heal: To sort of turn the question on its head, do you think the Book of Mormon’s use of Isaiah, kind of can inform Isaiah scholarship? Is it a critique or, you know, implicitly or explicitly, of kind of modern approaches to Isaiah?
Joseph Spencer: I think so. There’s always a danger in reading the Book of Mormon, with an eye very focused on, say, the moment that the Book of Mormon is coming forth because it can start to feel like we’re trying to cram it into the context of its emergence. But I think this is actually a really important thing. And I trust that when God brings forth the Book of Mormon at a very specific point, and has these ancient prophets looking forward to that moment, he is shaping their thoughts and their messages to speak to concerns that are relevant right at the moment the Book of Mormon drops, as well as then the ongoing history. So one thing that’s very interesting about that, take just the example of what happens with Abinadi. Abinadi is confronted by a group of priests who interpret Isaiah, you have to kind of riddle it out of the text a bit but it’s not hard, I think, to see what the priests understand Isaiah’s words to mean for them in their context. And they’re using Isaiah to justify their own oppression, to justify their own power, and this kind of thing. And this puts Abinadi in a kind of tight spot, he’s got to explain Isaiah in another way, so that it can mean other things, and so on. And then he unpacks reading very famously, Isaiah 53, the song of the suffering servant. But in his reading, if you look at how that reading would have sat in 1830, the moment the Book of Mormon is published in English, anyone who say knew Isaiah very well, and knew the history of how people read Isaiah, and if they are reading, Abinadi carefully, they would say, this feels kind of fourth or fifth century-ish, it feels very out of sync with the times. And it seems to hark back to a time long before the rise of biblical criticism, long before the rise of modern science, and modern reading practices, to a time when there’s a kind of implicit trust, in what Abinadi calls the Spirit of Prophesying. It almost feels like Abinadi is reading with people like St. Augustine, or Athanasius or something. And that itself, I think, is something of a message, right? Here’s Abinadi in some sense, saying to modern readers, don’t run away from the Spirit of Prophesying too quickly. What if you heard Isaiah is speaking to this situation of Christ’s birth and death, rather than just trapping it in a certain historical framework?
Kristian Heal: Yeah, that’s a really sort of lovely perspective, which, again, the number of things you’ve said, already, kind of drawing us away from kind of a simplistic reading of Isaiah, and especially what is happening with Isaiah in the Book of Mormon, and helping us find that kind of nuance or that difference. And seems to me that the Book of Mormon, again, has so much to sort of give us as we come back to it, as it teaches us to kind of read the Bible, and to remember that God is at work here.
Joseph Stuart: So thinking about Nephi and Isaiah, and especially how Nephi loves to quote Isaiah and puts entire sections into his writings. What do you think is the catalyst for Nephi’s interest in the Book of Isaiah?
Joseph Spencer: This is, I think, a great question, especially because it’s very different from Abinadi’s, Abinadi is put on the spot, you better interpret this text because we know what it means. And of course, when Jesus Christ visits the Nephites and Lamanites in Third Nephi, he’s got very much his own reasons. We tend to focus so intensely on the opening chapters of First Nephi if we’re looking for storyline, for obvious reasons. Here, we’re getting all these exciting adventures of going back and forth to the city of Jerusalem and things happening in the desert, and on the high seas, and all this kind of thing. But if you pay attention to your markers, in Nephi’s record, he makes it very clear that he doesn’t write any of this engagement with Isaiah stuff, until they’ve been in the Promised Land for decades. And of course, there’s work they’ve got to do, and community building, and all that kind of thing. But it’s not hard to imagine just how much time Nephi has to kill. He’s sitting around wondering what to do with his time. And the one book he brought with him to this desert island is the brass plates. He’s got this text of Isaiah. And I think what Nephi does is reads this thing over and over again. And as he reads, he starts to find things in it that resonate with things he’s learned very directly from God. So he’s got a massive vision that we’re familiar with. Right, in First Nephi 11 through 14, where he sees a whole history of both he sees in advance that His people will be destroyed. But that his brothers people will survive as a remnant for the last days, and then that some book will come forth and trigger all kinds of redemption and so on. But that book will come forth in a peculiar way, it’s going to come through the hands of Gentiles, people from outside of the Covenant, outside of Israel, who will come from Europe and so on. And bring this so that Gentiles will get involved in the redemption of this remnant, and this book will be in the midst of that project. And this will be what triggers a kind of global gathering of Israel. That’s what Nephi sees. And as he reads Isaiah, I think he just starts to see these same motifs cropping up. You’ve got Isaiah interested in the image of a sealed book, or of prophecies that aren’t being received by His own people. And so he has to seal them up or bind them up for a later time. And I think Nephi goes, I knew from the very beginning no one was going to listen to me, that’s exactly what Isaiah’s experience as a prophet was. You’ve got Nephi looking forward to a time when the Gentiles will be involved in the redemption of a remnant of Israel. Isaiah is talking about how Israel’s disastrous situation in his own day leads to the winnowing down of his people to just a remnant. And then that remnant being redeemed because of Gentiles in Isaiah’s book, he’s talking about Persians, very specifically carrying Jews back from exile. But Nephi goes up Gentiles getting involved, redeeming the remnant of Israel, putting them back in their lands. This is exactly what I saw in my own vision. So I think this is what triggers it, is Nephi sees in Isaiah’s writings, themes and images, and ideas, and historical patterns that are perfectly parallel to his own visions.
Kristian Heal: It’s interesting to compare, sort of Nephi’s relationship with Isaiah and, say, Jacob’s relationship with Zenos’s parable in Jacob 5, is that it seems to be serving the same kind of function. This is explaining what was happening to us and sort of our future, but that Nephi‘s vision, the particularities of it kind of draw him into Isaiah as this special kind of resource that is explaining kind of Israel, and its multiple kind of iterations.
Joseph Spencer: Yeah, I wish we had two hours to talk about Jacob here because I’m in the middle of some research on exactly what Jacob’s relationship to all this is and what he does with Zenos’s allegory, parable, or we usually call it an allegory. But what he does with that is complexly related, I think, to what Nephi does with Isaiah, and it’s really striking that Jacob doesn’t choose Isaiah as his primary resource. And I think there may be reasons; Nephi thinks Isaiah is the great resource, Jacob seems a bit nervous. And I think there may be reasons Jacob has, but it would probably take us too long to dig into those today.
Kristian Heal: Presumably one of them, at least, is going to be kind of Nephi’s conviction that you don’t really get Isaiah unless you understand the things of the Jews, and his brother is, I mean, grows up just in their family culture, not in kind of Jewish culture in the same way that Nephi did. I mean, maybe there’s something happening. I look forward to that piece of research, that’s always kind of fascinated me, this kind of different approach that was taken to the brass plates, and what resources they’re kind of finding to explain and enrich their experience in this new world. Going back to something that you sort of said earlier about these different Isaiahs we find in the Book of Mormon, it feels like Nephi is almost giving us a redaction of a kind of Isaiah, he’s giving us a deliberate sample, it is not a random sample. He’s sort of giving us a very picture drawn from and recreated from Isaiah, the canonical order, the way that he sort of quotes it. What’s going on there with Nephi’s kind of presentation of Isaiah.
Joseph Spencer: Yeah, there’s certain portions of it that he seems to emphasize, above all, and he arranges them, as you say, I think quite nicely in another order. What seems to, at least in my view, what seems to have driven Nephi’s interest in particular texts, in part, is just the themes of his own vision. But part of it too is that he seems to be in some sense sifting out the things that he thinks will be of less interest to his people. So for example, there’s a whole stretch of the first part of the Book of Isaiah that scholars call the oracles to the nations, right? So this is Isaiah 13 through 23. So you get 11 chapters there all focused on the burden of Moab, the burden of Egypt, all these different nations that Isaiah just one by one sort of gives his prophetic assessment of and so on. The only part of that stretch that Nephi quotes at all is Isaiah 13 and 14, which is about Babylon, the world power in Nephi’s own day and the thing that devastates his people after he leaves; otherwise, he just doesn’t care about the oracles against nations. Forget that. This has nothing to do with what we’re doing in the new world. To take another example, in the second portion of Isaiah, what scholars call Second Isaiah, Isaiah 40 through 55, Nephi more or less ignores entirely the first half of what scholars call Second Isaiah, and what he focuses on then as a series of alternating poems, the second half of Second Isaiah, this is especially chapters 49 through 55, scholars articulate as being a series of poems but alternating, so you get a poem about daughter Zion, and then a poem about some male servant, then a poem about daughter Zion, and a poem about a male servant, just alternates back and forth. And these Nephi draws on and makes his brother draw on, and it continues into the rest of the Book of Mormon. These are themes then that really interest him. There’s this suffering servant, which the Nephites, especially when you get to Abinadi, read straight up as Christ. And there’s the story of daughter Zion, the story of the Abrahamic Covenant and the redemption of this land. And by taking these alternating poems and highlighting them, but leaving out other things that are about how exactly are Jews going to get back to Jerusalem, he can focus on the destiny of Israel, and Christ’s role in that redemption. So mostly, it seems he wants to emphasize certain themes and other things, he can just leave out of account.
Kristian Heal: I often think of the Book of Isaiah as sort of a palimpsest with these multiple futures of Israel kind of laying on top of each other. And sometimes they kind of make sense, it feels like Nephi has been able to pull one of those layers out. This is the Nephite bit of Isaiah, and sort of extract it from the whole sort of picture and present it sort of wonderfully carefully, and sometimes those same chapters will be referring to another vision of Isaiah, the vision of Christ or of some other aspects of the interpretive frame press. It’s brilliant actually to see a prophet at work in the scriptures, applying them, sort of teasing out this application, for his kind of own day and for his own vision and kind of seeing how they relate. It’s a really, you know, it’s profound and so beautiful.
Joseph Spencer: Yeah I’ll actually give two quick examples where there are two ways we could read this, but I’m going to read it in one specific way. So I’ll read it as moments where Nephi is kind of tampering with Isaiah to bring out something he wants to say. We could of course, and many people have seen these moments as moments where we get access to the original text of Isaiah, but I think Nephi is probably screwing with the text a little. So one example is early on Isaiah 2, the way it reads in the Bible, you get this opening vision of up in the mountain, the Lord’s house, and all these people coming and beating their swords into plowshares. As it reads in the book of Isaiah, and then just says, right, you get the sudden turn. And Isaiah says, now come and let us walk in the light of the Lord. But Nephi’s is a little longer than it says, Come let us walk in the light of the Lord, yay come, for you have all gone astray everyone to his wicked way. Right, and then continues with the text. Now it might be that this is a more original version of Isaiah, that is a possibility. But if Nephi is screwing with the text here, what’s really striking is that he introduces into the text there the language of Isaiah 53, right? We have hidden our faces, we’ve turned away from the suffering servant in our midst, and so on, we have turned every one of us to our wicked ways. So Nephi seems to try to make the very beginning of his copy of Isaiah anticipate the very end. You’ve all gone astray, now let’s tell this whole story at the end of which you will admit you have hidden your faces, right. Another moment, kind of like this, comes at the beginning of Isaiah 5. Scholars all seem to agree that Isaiah two through four forms a kind of unit. And Isaiah five forms a separate unit. So here are two chunks of Isaiah, as it stands in the Hebrew Bible. Nephi turns this into one big chunk. It’s one original chapter in the 1830 edition of The Book of Mormon. But also he adds a couple of words at the beginning of what’s now Isaiah 5, so that this flows together. And what instead then, of what you have in the Bible, where you have one big chunk that kind of opens and closes in similar ways, and then has the stuff in the middle, and then a whole separate text. Nephi has this kind of alternating pattern, this vision of the future for a couple of verses, and then the miserable situation in the present, then a little bit of a vision of the future, and then the miserable present situation. So you get this kind of alternating feeling of what if we, but look at you, but what if we, but look at you, right? That Nephi introduces into the text of Isaiah, that isn’t there. So yeah, I really think you’re right, we see Nephi sort of tweaking and tampering prophetically in a way that then brings something out of Isaiah that we would not have seen.
Kristian Heal: One of my growing convictions is that kind of all scripture is rewriting in some form. And so the fact that Nephi gives us this rewritten Isaiah, these subtle tweaks, these small changes, are actually giving us something entirely new. It’s really kind of fantastic.
Joseph Stuart: So Nephi rightly focuses on the Book of Mormon as a sacred text for the latter days. How does his use of Isaiah reinforce that message?
Joseph Spencer: Yeah, so he uses a couple of different passages in Isaiah, but most famously, Isaiah 29, to try to think about the Book of Mormon, and it’s coming forth because he’s, of course, seeing it in vision. What’s really striking is that it’s with Isaiah 29, that Nephi gets the most creative. Everywhere else he mostly is quoting Isaiah, though he’s tweaking it in ways we’ve been talking about or whatever. But when you get Isaiah 29, he takes it to pieces, spreads it all out over a bunch of prophecies, he weaves his own vision into it, and so on. The moment he gets the most creative is these two verses of Isaiah 29 about a sealed book, right, being given to those who are learned and to those who are not learned and their various responses. And Nephi just unpacks this into this kind of complex parable, I think is the way to put it, a parable. And especially what he does is he teases out nuances of Isaiah’s text there that I think we really easily gloss over. Isaiah 29:11 says, the vision of all is become unto you as the words of a book that is sealed, right? What Nephi emphasizes, oh, it doesn’t say like a book that is sealed. It’s become like the words of a book that is sealed, and Nephi peels apart the book and the words of the book, and spins out this parable, where the book seems to be the gold plates that Joseph digs out of the hill. And the words of the book seems to be the Book of Mormon as we can circulate it in print and that kind of thing. And then Nephi can sort of play on the inaccessibility of the book, gold plates are not going to be given to the world, you’re only going to get the words of the book. So the question is, how can you deal with that fact? There are witnesses that will tell you they saw the book, but you’ve really got to drown in these words a bit. And so Nephi can take just a few little words from Isaiah, tease them out a bit, and then he can actually, I mean, I want to put it philosophically, can theorize, what it means for the Book of Mormon to land in the last days as a kind of scandal: you don’t have access to the material proof. Can you still believe? And this is what sticks in the craw of Charles Anthon and all of us as our own little Charles Anthons because we want the plates, we want evidence, we want that actual material thing. And Nephi can sort of poke at us a bit and say, can you handle the Book of Mormon?
Kristian Heal: I feel as though you’ve sort of opened the curtains for us a little bit here, and shown us a wonderful world, which is the world of the Book of Mormon reading Isaiah. And I wish we could spend the rest of the day talking with you about this. But as we can’t, where do you send people I ask to whom you’ve given a kind of a glimpse of this kind of marvelous world to learn more, what resources?
Joseph Stuart: Yeah, I mean, there’s great scholarship on Isaiah, as a book, right? Tons and tons of scholarship. Your question sounds like it’s more about reading Isaiah with the Book of Mormon. Unfortunately, the vast majority of what Latter-day Saint scholars have written on Isaiah is just about Isaiah itself, right? We sort of feel that pressure, we’ve got to know what Isaiah means because Jesus said, we need to read him. And so most of that literature, it might touch on the Book of Mormon here, there, but usually the gesture it will make is something like, well, the Book of Mormon corrects this problem in Isaiah or something. So there isn’t a ton of literature on how to read Isaiah with the Book of Mormon, how the Book of Mormon authors are themselves giving us to read the Book of Mormon. So I have to be self serving for a moment because most of what’s been written on the subject I wrote. So I wrote a book called The Vision of All that was mentioned at the beginning of the podcast. The Vision of All: Twenty-five Lectures on Isaiah and Nephi’s record where I just work in a really informal way, I tried very hard to be accessible to average readers. In fact, I tried hard enough that scholarly readers complain about the book being too accessible occasionally. But I tried just to work through from beginning to end what Nephi is doing with Isaiah, step by step. That book doesn’t deal with Abinadi or Christ. But I’ve dealt in a few other places with those kinds of things. My very first book, An Other Testament: On Typology, deals with some of those things. But also, I’ve got other work on its way out, hopefully, that will also try to make some of this very accessible.
Joseph Stuart: So we mentioned that at the beginning, but you’ve recently submitted a manuscript to the University of Illinois Press on Isaiah and the Book of Mormon. Could you tell us a little bit about the project and how it differs from your earlier book, The Vision of All?
Joseph Spencer: Yeah, so this project is, I mean for one, it’s aimed at other scholars and scholars who are not in the Latter-day Saint tradition, though, of course, I’ve tried to write it so that it’s as accessible as possible to any reader. But I’m trying to communicate with people for whom the book is not scripture, and for whom, people who would assume that the book is the product of 19th century religious cultures. I make very clear right up front that I’m a believer, and then I take the book to be ancient and sacred, but I tried to converse with them about what Isaiah is doing in the Book of Mormon. But most of what makes the book different, actually, far more than that, just the audience and tone I’m trying to take there, is that here, I tried to put the Book of Mormons uses of Isaiah in Nephi and Abinadi and Christ, I try to put it in conversation with a much longer history. In my other work, as in The Vision of All for example, I am just asking what’s Nephi doing with Isaiah? What’s Abinadi doing with Isaiah or whatever? But in this book, I asked that question and then add to it: How is that different from the way Catholics are reading the Bible? Or reading Isaiah? How is that different from the way Protestants, Jews, Muslims over the course of 2000-2500 years of reading, and that allows me, earlier I mentioned that Abinadi reads something more like a fourth or fifth century reader of Isaiah. It’s only I think, when you put it in that larger history that you can start to see those kinds of things. You can see that people in the 19th century reading the Book of Mormon would have read third Nephi and felt like whoa, this is very against the grain. This is kind of wacky religion we do on the margins. This is not mainstream. The kind of thing you’re going to hear at Yale Divinity School or something. They could feel that I think very keenly, whereas what Abinadi does with Isaiah they might have felt more comfortable. So that’s what makes the book I’ve been working on different is that I’m trying to ask in a more sort of comparative vein. How weird is the Book of Mormon when it reads Isaiah? How unique is it? And where does it look like other things that other people are doing so that we can see it as part of a conversation that people would have been able to recognize?
Joseph Stuart: Well, we will look forward to the book and we’ll be sure to share more on social media when it’s published. But thank you,Joe Spencer, for spending time with us on Abide.
Joseph Spencer: Yeah, thanks.
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The views expressed here and in Maxwell Institute publications are those of the individual authors and do not necessarily represent the views of the Maxwell Institute, Brigham Young University, or The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
“Seek ye diligently and teach one another words of wisdom; yea, seek ye out of the best books words of wisdom; seek learning, even by study and also by faith.” (D&C 88:118)