2 Nephi 25:1, 5 — LeGrand Baker — Why Isaiah?
1 Now I, Nephi, do speak somewhat concerning the words which I have written, which have been spoken by the mouth of Isaiah. Forbehold, Isaiah spake many things which were hard for many of my people to understand; for they know not concerning the manner of prophesying among the Jews…..
5. Yea, and my soul delighteth in the words of Isaiah…(2 Nephi 25:1, 5).
When the Saviour came to America he commanded,
1 And now, behold, I say unto you, that ye ought to search these things. Yea, a commandment I give unto you that ye search these things diligently; for great are the words of Isaiah. (3 Nephi 23:1)
And to that, Mormon added, “Search the prophecies of Isaiah. ( Mormon 8:23)
I would like to address the question, “Why Isaiah?” Why not Jeremiah, or Ezekiel. or Deuteronomy? Actually there is a very good answer to that question, and while I won’t attempt to do it justice in the short space I have to write in, I would like to at least give a brief overview of the answer.
The Prophet Joseph wrote, “We believe the Bible to be the word of God as far as it is translated correctly…” “Translated” works fine if one reads it to mean, “We believe the Bible to be the word of God so far as our version says the same thing as the original said.” But a more precise way of writing what Joseph probably meant would be, “We believe the Bible to be the word of God as far as it is both transmitted, and translated correctly.” It is the “transmitted” part which I wish to discuss.
Bible scholars are forever arguing about which parts of the Bible were written when. For example, one prominent view is that much, if not all, of the five books of Moses were written after the Babylonian captivity. Most scholars believe that all of Deuteronomy was written just before the exile into Babylon.. Nephi tells us that the Books of Moses were included on the Brass Plates, so we know they couldn’t have been written after the Babylonian captivity. However, In some ways, the scholarly argument is quite sound. All one has to do is compare the Book of Moses in the Pearl of Great Price with the beginning of Genesis is our Bible, to discover that someone has taken some enormous editorial liberties with Moses’ writings. One of the reasons scholars say that the Books of Moses were written after the Babylonian captivity is because some of those editorial changes bear the linguistic marks of that later period of Jewish history.
Let me explain. If I handed you a copy of a page from a book by Mark Twain, and on that page he had quoted a scripture, but hadn’t bothered to put quotation marks around it – and if you were not familiar with either that page of Twain’s writings or with the scripture – and if I asked you to circle the words which had been lifted from the Bible, you could easily do that. Even though both Mark Twain and the Bible quote are written in English, the language style is sufficiently different that you could readily tell which was which. A scholar can recognize those kinds of differences in Biblical Hebrew as well. Not everyone agrees on just what those stylistic shifts in the text mean, but scholars agree that they at least mean that much of the version of the Bible which has been preserved until our day, has been given a pretty through editing by people who lived many years after the original writers.
For example, most scholars believe that the history books (Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Joshua, Judges, Ruth, Samuel, Kings, Chronicles) are each compilations of at least two, and probably more original histories, and that the historians who compiled them had different motives and thus selected different things to include – and to exclude – in order to achieve their own purposes. Thus Kings and Chronicles, which describe the same time periods, focus on different stories and use the stories to make different points. These two histories (Kings and Chronicles) each end after the Babylonian captivity, so it would be a bit difficult to argue that they were written or compiled during a period before the Babylonian captivity. If that is correct it means that the entire first half of our version of the Old Testament was either written or severely edited after the Babylonian captivity. That fact (I presume it is a fact) is extremely interesting to Latter-day Saints, because by knowing the time of that writing or editing, we can deduce a number of significant things.
First, If our versions of the five Books of Moses were edited after the Babylonian captivity, the versions we have are significantly different from the versions which were contained on the Brass Plates. Consequently, the Book of Mormon references to the “Law of Moses” may refer to facts about the Law which are not transmitted in our Bible. The most obvious example of this is that the Book of Mormon prophets repeatedly say that the Law of Moses is about the Saviour, yet, apart from the idea of the sacrificial Lamb of Passover, we have difficulty discovering how that is so.
Second, The other history books ( Joshua, Judges, Ruth, Samuel, Kings, Chronicles) could not have been on the Brass Plates if it is true that they were written after Lehi left Jerusalem. But what might be on the Brass Plates is copies of the original manuscripts from which the information in our histories was taken.
By the way, that same logic, teaches a good deal more about the contents of the Brass Plates. For the same reason Ezra, Nehemiah, Ester, part of Jeremiah, Lamentations, Ezekiel, Daniel, Haggai, Zechariah, and Malachi were written after Lehi left Jerusalem so were not included on the Brass Plates.
So, of the books in the Old Testament which we have, which MAY have been included on the Brass Plates were the writings of some of the “minor” prophets (Hosea [c. 740 BC], Joel [before 850 BC or as late as after the return], Amos [about 740 BC], Obadiah [c. 845 BC], Jonah [It is not known when this story was written.], Micah [unknown], Nahum [probably a contemporary of Lehi], Habakkuk [ probably a contemporary of Lehi], Zephaniah [another probable contemporary of Lehi].). There may also have been Job, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, and The Song of Solomon. But the only ones we can be sure of (because they are either mentioned, quoted, or paraphrased in the Book of Mormon) are the Books of Moses, Job, Psalms, Isaiah, and part of Jeremiah. There are also prophets which we do not have in our Old Testament, most notably Zenock and Zenos. We can also be sure that the Brass Plates contained some Israelite history, because both David and Solomon are mentioned in the Book of Mormon.
When the angel described our Bible to Nephi, he described it this way:
23 The book that thou beholdest is a record of the Jews, which contains the covenants of the Lord, which he hath made unto the house of Israel; and it also containeth many of the prophecies of the holy prophets; and it is a record like unto the engravings which are upon the plates of brass, save there are not so many; nevertheless, they contain the covenants of the Lord, which he hath made unto the house of Israel; wherefore, they are of great worth unto the Gentiles (1 Nephi 13:23).
All that is relevant, but it still does not answer the question, “Why Isaiah.” The answer to that question will become obvious if we begin by eliminating the others, and ask, “Why not Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and the minor prophets?” The answer seems to be that these prophets wrote about specific events or circumstances, but not write so much about the doctrines and the theology. For example, in the books of Jeremiah and Lamentations, Jeremiah tells his story, calls the Jews to repentance, and bemoans the loss of Jerusalem and its Temple. Ezekiel is a contemporary of Jeremiah and Lehi, but Ezekiel is already in exile in Babylon and is writing about the problems of his own time. The minor prophets also write about the problems of their own times. Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and the minor prophets contain important prophecies about the Saviour and the return of Israel, but even though there is much truth their, their object is to write about other things besides the gospel, the temple, or the plan of salvation.
Why not the Books of Moses? Because much is missing from our five books of Moses. I’ve already mentioned Genesis, but there are other important examples also. The book of Leviticus, for instance, is the place where we go to find the particulars about the sacrifices and performances of the Law of Moses. But all Leviticus is, is an Aaronic priesthood handbook telling how and which sacrifices are to be performed when. It tells almost nothing about what the rest of the people do when those sacrifices are performed. It tells almost nothing of the other ceremonies connected with those sacrifices. Probably the most important example of that lack of information is the Leviticus description of the Feast of Tabernacles. It tells what animals are sacrifices and how, but in conjunction with those Aaronic Priesthood ordinances, the people were re-enacting the whole story of the plan of salvation. We have almost nothing in our versions of the books of Moses which even suggest such ceremonies were going on. (more about that below)
Why not the histories, Kings and Chronicles? Because they were written or compiled during the time of Jewish apostasy, and they reflect the doctrines of that apostasy. Before the Babylonian captivity the Israelite religion was polytheistic. They believed in Elohim, Jehovah, and a whole Council of minor gods. After the return from Babylon, they became monotheistic, worshiping only Jehovah, but not being sure about who or what he was. Much of the “problems” with the wrathful “Old Testament God” are due to the histories’ having been written during the time when Jews were not quite sure what God was. There are other doctrinal problems in the histories as well. One of the most important is the omission of the story of the plan of salvation as I mentioned in the preceding chapter.
Why not the Psalms? The Psalms are wonderful. They are the actual text of the dramatization of the plan of salvation. They may not be perfect, but many of them seem to have come down to us almost in tact. Their problem is their arrangement. One cannot read them in sequence and discover what they were originally about. Some scholars call the arrangement and headings of the Psalms “the first commentary on the Psalms.” These headings, along with the present arrangement were added after the Babylonian captivity, during the period of apostasy I have just described. Consequently, whatever one might have learned from reading the Psalms in their original order, is now almost entirely lost. For example, if our temple ceremony was much longer, and mostly sung in a whole series of separate songs, one would expect, if he read the words of those songs in their correct order, to discover a good part of the ceremony. But if the songs were all jumbled up, one just couldn’t find a story, and might even conclude there had never been a story in the first place. That would be especially true if the new arrangement of the songs was divided into groupings, with the implication that there was meaning in the groupings. That is the situation with the Psalms. It seems to be all there, but looking for it is like trying to make sense of a picture when all one has is the scattered pieces of a jigsaw puzzle. A couple specific examples: At the conclusion of the ceremony the king was anointed “king.” The Psalm which was probably sung during that anointing ceremony is Psalm 2. So in our version, we find the song which was supposed to be sung at the conclusion of the drama, at the beginning of the hymn book. Another example. There is a scene in which one sees the Council in Heaven. Jehovah has just been anointed King of Israel, and now this scene shows the calling of the earthly king and queen. That Psalm would have been sung during one of the earliest scenes in the drama, but in our arrangement of the Psalms it is # 45, a third of the way into our present book. Psalm 82 also takes place in the Council, it is almost two thirds of the way into our Book of Psalms. So, in its present jumbled condition, the Book of Psalms is not the best place to look to find the doctrines of the gospel and of the plan of salvation.
That leaves Isaiah – and Isaiah is wonderful. It is evident from quotes in the Book of Mormon, that our version of Isaiah is transmitted to us in very good condition. It is full of the gospel, and the whole plan of salvation is there. There are prophecies of the Saviour, explanations of the atonement, examples of how to obtain individual salvation, discussions of the covenants made by the Father with his children, and an explanation of the entire plan of salvation as described in their ancient temple ceremonies.
Beginning with Isaiah 40 and continuing to the end (excluding the Cyrus chapters which were added later) the latter half of Isaiah is a commentary on the ancient Israelite temple ceremony which was glorified by the singing of the Psalms.
Why is Isaiah so difficult to understand? Because it is written in the context of the ancient temple. People who do not know the temple have no context into which they can put Isaiah’s writings, so they have to make up their own context. Since Isaiah uses some historical references to make his points, most scholars use those historical references as the context, and miss the point altogether.
Why did Nephi teach Isaiah without teaching about Jewish history? Because Isaiah is written in the language of the temple, so one can read and understand at least the latter half of Isaiah without knowing hardly anything at all about Jewish history.
Why is Isaiah so important? For the same reason the ancient temple ceremony was so important. It told the story of our existence from the Council in Heaven until the resurrection. It identified the participants of that ancient ceremony in terms of where they were just now – that is, where this world’s experiences fit into the overall context of the great, eternal story. It told them how they came to be here on the earth, and what they must DO and BE in order to return to their Father. Isaiah does that in the same sequence, in the same format, and with the same message as the ancient temple drama in the Psalms. That’s why Isaiah is so important, and, I am sure, that is why Nephi loved his writings as he did.