1 Nephi 20 & Isaiah 48 — LeGrand Baker — An Historical Introduction

1 Nephi 20 & Isaiah 48 

After this introduction, I have divided First Nephi 20 and 21 into the following subsections:

1. The premortal apostasy, 1 Nephi 20:1-11

2. Joseph Smith in the Council in Heaven, 1 Nephi 20:12-17

3. Apostasy preceding the Restoration, 1 Nephi 20:18 to 21:1a

4. Those who will help the Prophet Joseph, 1 Nephi 21:1-6

5. Joseph Smith restores the Temple services, 1 Nephi 21:7-11

6. The Gathering of Israel, 1 Nephi 21: 12-26

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Notwithstanding the eternal nature of the covenant that God made with the house of David, Isaiah is reported to have prophesied that God would break that covenant and give the kingship to a non-Israelite. This is the story behind Isaiah’s purported prophecy:

It is almost universally accepted by Biblical scholars that the second half of Isaiah, beginning with chapter 40, was written by a different author from the first half. There are two major reasons for this belief. The first reason is that the second half, called by them “Second Isaiah,” is different in its subject and approach. While the first half deals with nations that are contemporary with Isaiah, “Second Isaiah” is heavily dependent of the Psalms and follows a pattern that begins with the events in the Council in Heaven and continues to the Millennial reign.

The second reason is that most scholars believe that “Second Isaiah” was written during the Babylonian captivity. This is evinced by that fact that the part which deals with Cyrus the Persian was written with past tense verbs, indicating that the prophesied events had already happened.

Cyrus is mentioned by name twice in Isaiah, in the last verse of chapter 44 and the first verse of chapter 45. In these passages God is reported to be using the same kind of covenantal phrases to describe his relationship with Cyrus as he once used to describe his covenant with the House of David, thereby passing the kingship of Judah from the House of David to the non-Israelite Cyrus and negating God’s own covenant with David. Isaiah 48 is the conclusion of that section that clearly deals with Cyrus.

However, we have a version of Isaiah 48 that was on the brass plates and therefore predates the Babylonian version. That pre-Babylonian version is 1 Nephi 20 and is substantially different from the one in the Bible. It does not support the idea that what Isaiah wrote was originally even about the Persian king. We find these differences between the two versions to be compelling evidence that the name of Cyrus and references to his kingship over Israel were secondary insertions by the later Jews, and that it was not Isaiah who wrote that Jehovah intended to break his covenant with the House of David.

First Nephi 20 appears at first glance to be only slightly different from Isaiah 48 in the King James Version, but upon close examination it becomes evident that the two chapters are about entirely different subjects. To understand the differences, it is helpful to place the Bible version in its historical context.

In 588 B.C., not long after Lehi and his family left Jerusalem, Nebuchadnezzar and the Babylonian army invaded Judah. The following year they defeated the Jews; destroyed Jerusalem and its Temple; executed many of the political, military, and religious leaders; and deported others to Babylon, leaving only the poorest people behind. The political and religious elite of the Jews were now captive slaves in or near Babylon. The period of their exile was rather humane. They were permitted to live as families, farm and engage in other business pursuits. Some even became wealthy and had political influence at court.

From Jerusalem, Jeremiah sent a letter to them urging that they take full advantage of their opportunities (Jeremiah 29:4-7).

Because Babylonian policy permitted the Jews to retain a coherent community life, they were able to preserve some of their culture. But the ease with which they were permitted to assimilate into Babylonian society threatened the integrity of their religion. The leaders sought to preserve their Law by modifying it and rewriting their history to conform with their new views of religion and kingship. They kept the Sabbath and continued circumcision, but they had lost their temple and could no longer practice their most important ordinances—especially those connected with the Feast of Tabernacles temple drama. It was probably during that time that the books of Moses were severely edited and the historical books in the Old Testament were written.{1}

Nebuchadnezzar’s son and grandson were not competent political or military leaders. The Persians defeated a Babylonian army in a battle on the Tigris River, and then, a few weeks later, they simply walked into the city of Babylon without a fight. The Persian king, Cyrus, was a Zoroastrian and one of the most enlightened monarchs of the ancient world. He commanded his army to respect the city’s inhabitants and their property, and was greeted by the people as a deliverer rather than as a conqueror. Cyrus soon began to free captives and to send the people whom the Babylonians had displaced back to their original homelands, along with their looted temple treasures. A condition of their being permitted to return home was that they acknowledge Cyrus as king and remain subservient to the their Persian rulers.

The Jews wanted to return to Jerusalem, but their covenants with Jehovah virtually precluded it. Their religion insisted that Jehovah had made an eternal covenant that David and his descendants would remain on the Jewish throne “forever.”

Psalm 89 celebrates and gives the conditions of the covenant between Jehovah and the house of David. It reads in part:

34 My covenant will I not break, nor alter the thing that is gone out of my lips.
35 Once have I sworn by my holiness that I will not lie unto David.
36 His seed shall endure for ever, and his throne as the sun before me.
37 It shall be established for ever as the moon, and as a faithful witness in heaven.

Isaiah understood that covenant would never be broken, but would remain valid until the end of time. He wrote:

3 Incline your ear, and come unto me: hear, and your soul shall live; and I will make an everlasting covenant with you, even the sure mercies of David.
4 Behold, I have given him for a witness to the people, a leader and commander to the people (Isaiah 55:3-4).

Notwithstanding the eternal nature of the covenant that God made with the house of David, Isaiah is reported to have prophesied that God would break that covenant and give the kingship to a non-Israelite. This is the story behind Isaiah’s purported prophecy:

It is almost universally accepted by Biblical scholars that the second half of Isaiah, beginning with chapter 40, was written by a different author from the first half. There are two major reasons for this belief. The first reason is that the second half, called by them “Second Isaiah,” is different in its subject and approach. While the first half deals with nations that are contemporary with Isaiah, “Second Isaiah” is heavily dependent of the Psalms and follows a pattern that begins with the events in the Council in Heaven and continues to the Millennial reign.

The second reason is that most scholars believe that “Second Isaiah” was written during the Babylonian captivity. This is evinced by that fact that the part which deals with Cyrus the Persian was written with past tense verbs, indicating that the prophesied events had already happened.

Cyrus is mentioned by name twice in Isaiah, in the last verse of chapter 44 and the first verse of chapter 45. In these passages God is reported to be using the same kind of covenantal phrases to describe his relationship with Cyrus as he once used to describe his covenant with the House of David, thereby passing the kingship of Judah from the House of David to the non-Israelite Cyrus and negating God’s own covenant with David. Isaiah 48 is the conclusion of that section that clearly deals with Cyrus.

However, we have a version of Isaiah 48 that was on the brass plates and therefore predates the Babylonian version. That pre-Babylonian version is 1 Nephi 20 and is substantially different from the one in the Bible. It does not support the idea that what Isaiah wrote was originally even about the Persian king. We find these differences between the two versions to be compelling evidence that the name of Cyrus and references to his kingship over Israel were secondary insertions by the later Jews, and that it was not Isaiah who wrote that Jehovah intended to break his covenant with the House of David.

Because the covenant was so much a part of Jewish theology, it could not easily be swept away. However, political necessity required that the terms of that covenant had to be modified just enough for the Jews to acknowledge that Cyrus, who was not an Israelite, could now be their king. Fortunately for them, just when it was most needed, the Jewish leaders in Babiylon “discovered” a document that said everything they needed it to say. It was claimed to have been written almost 200 years earlier by Isaiah, one of the most renowned prophets. There is no surviving explanation about how the document remained unknown to the Jews during all the time they were at Jerusalem and then turned up two centuries later in faraway Babylon. In the document was a “secret vision.” Isaiah was said to have prophesied that God would transfer the terms of the Davidic covenant of kingship from the house of David to a non-Israelite king. It even named Cyrus by name and said he had been chosen by Jehovah in the Council in Heaven to be king and liberator of the Jews.

The “secret vision” was of the utmost importance, because such an acknowledgment of Cyrus on the part of the Jews and their prophet was a necessary pre-condition for their return to Jerusalem. It also meant that there could never be another Jewish king and consequently that there could be no celebration of the Feast of Tabernacles temple coronation drama.

Josephus tells how the Jews used their newly discovered manuscript to convince Cyrus to send them and their temple treasures back to Jerusalem:

This [claim that Cyrus was chosen by Jehovah] was known to Cyrus by his reading the book which Isaiah left behind him of his prophecies; for this prophet said that God had spoken thus to him in a secret vision: “My will is, that Cyrus, whom I have appointed to be king over many and great nations, send back my people to their own land, and build my temple.” This was foretold by Isaiah one hundred and forty years before the temple was demolished. Accordingly, when Cyrus read this, and admired the Divine power, an earnest desire and ambition seized upon him to fulfill what was so written; so he called for the most eminent Jews that were in Babylon, and said to them, that he gave them leave to go back to their own country, and to rebuild their city Jerusalem, and the temple of God, for that he would be their assistant, and that he would write to the rulers and governors that were in the neighborhood of their country of Judea, that they should contribute to them gold and silver for the building of the temple, and besides that, beasts for their sacrifices.{2}

The verse in the King James Version that introduces the Cyrus chapters reads:

That saith of Cyrus, He is my shepherd, and shall perform all my pleasure: even saying to Jerusalem, Thou shalt be built; and to the temple, Thy foundation shall be laid (Isaiah 44:28).

About that verse, McKenzie observes,

This is the first time Cyrus is named in the prophecy. He is called “my shepherd”; shepherd is a common title of kings in the OT and in other ancient Near Eastern literature; it is also a title of Yahweh. Cyrus is thus given the title of an Israelite king.{3}

The next verse reads,

Thus saith the Lord to his anointed, to Cyrus, whose right hand I have holden, to subdue nations before him; and I will loose the loins of kings, to open before him the two leaved gates; and the gates shall not be shut (Isaiah 45:1).

About that verse, McKenzie observes,

“The anointed of Yahweh” is the title given the Israelite king from Saul and David onward, and in particular to kings of the dynasty of David. The ceremony of anointing consecrated an object or a person. The title “anointed” passes into English as Messiah, and through the Greek as Christ. Cyrus is given the place in the history of salvation which in pre-exilic Israel was given to the king.{4}

Thus, the secret prophecy of Isaiah was claimed to have transferred the kingship of Israel from David and the seed of Abraham to a gentile king. This transfer presents a glaring problem, for it violates the Lord’s covenants with David and all of his successor kings and makes God’s “eternal covenants” only as tentative as it proves to be expedient.

After they had lost their right to have a king, and the Jewish kingship was transferred to a non-Israelite monarch, the Jewish High Priests assumed the religious and ceremonial roles that had once been an integral part of Israelite kingship. Mowinckel explains,

In the post-exilic age the High-priests became in many respects the heirs of the kings. … In the post-exilic age it was established that the cult was the exclusive privilege of the priesthood; and the High-priest claimed kingly status through his anointing and the wearing of the diadem.{5}

While Cyrus accepted the manuscript as the legitimate writings of the Prophet Isaiah, modern scholars do not. The Cyrus passages, more than anything else, are the bases for the scholars’ dividing the book of Isaiah into at least two, and often four, separate parts, each with their own author, and only the first part being written by the original Isaiah.

Because the Book of Mormon quotes from the second half of Isaiah as it was written on the brass plates, we can be sure that those parts really were written by the prophet Isaiah. However, because of differences between the biblical version and the Book of Mormon version, we can be equally sure that part of that second half was written after Lehi left Jerusalem and was subsequently added to the original text.

Most Bible scholars believe that the dividing line between First and Second Isaiah is chapters 36-39 that deal with Hezekiah. That seems reasonable because the subject matter, and in places the writing style, of the second half is different from the first. In the view of these scholars, an “anonymous author” called Second Isaiah, is credited with writing chapters 40-55, and is believed to have written his work sometime after the fall of Jerusalem, that is, during the Babylonian captivity.{6} Some scholars attribute the remaining chapters, 56-66, to a third and even a fourth Isaiah. Even though scholars insist such authors lived and wrote, they acknowledge that they know nothing about them, as North wrote:

Nothing is known of the author, who is generally referred to as Second Isaiah, or Deutero-Isaiah, occasionally the “Babylonian Isaiah.” It is probable that he lived in Babylonia, though Palestine, and even Lebanon or Egypt, have been suggested.{7}

A quick review of the last half of Isaiah shows how it was so easy to insert the Cyrus chapters. Isaiah 40 clearly takes place in the premortal Council in Heaven. Its first two verses are instructions by Elohim to the members of the Council, and that is immediately followed by the assignment given to John the Baptist to prepare the way of the Lord. With that context already established, the Cyrus chapters seem to fit very nicely.

In the Bible, Isaiah 44:28 through chapter 48 deals with the foreordination of Cyrus, king of Persia, identifying him by name and outlining his mission to free the Jews from Babylon and permit them to return to Jerusalem to build the temple. But in the Book of Mormon, where Nephi quotes the Brass Plates version of Isaiah 48, that chapter is not about Cyrus but is about something else altogether.

For example, in addition to the transfer of kingship to a non-Israelite king, there are some other very troubling aspects to the Bible’s Cyrus chapters. One of the most obvious is in chapter 48 which reads:

I have declared the former things from the beginning; and they went forth out of my mouth, and I shewed them; I did them suddenly [“Suddenly” means without hesitation, rather than quickly], and they came to pass (Isaiah 48:3).

This verse is one of the many passages that is used to support the proposition that there was a “Second Isaiah” who wrote the latter half of the book of Isaiah sometime during the Babylonian captivity. In this and similar passages, the action is described in the past tense, meaning that it had already been accomplished before or during the lifetime of the author. The implication is that the author had already watched it happen and that it is a report of a past event rather than a prophecy of the future. The Book of Mormon rendition of that verse does not present that problem. It reads,

Behold, I have declared the former things from the beginning; and they went forth out of my mouth, and I showed them. I did show them suddenly (1 Nephi 20:3).

This rendition really is a prophecy. It says that an event was foretold—declared and shown in “the beginning.” There is no indication that the action had already been accomplished.

The fact that Isaiah 48 was on the brass plates and quoted by Nephi is sufficient evidence that at least that portion of the Cyrus chapters was not written during the Babylonian captivity. However, the differences between the two posit that after Lehi and the brass plates left Jerusalem that chapter was altered just enough to make it be about Cyrus.{8} Still, LDS scholars have treated 1 Nephi 20 as though it were about Cyrus.

Our approach will be to make a careful comparison between Isaiah 48 and 1 Nephi 20 to show how different they are, but also to demonstrate that version in the in the Book of Mormon is not the foreordination of Cyrus but rather the premortal role of the Prophet Joseph Smith.

In the following analysis we will examine 1 Nephi 20 as it is. However, in the footnotes we will compare the wording of the Book of Mormon with translations of the Hebrew version in the Bible.{9}
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FOOTNOTES

{1} For a discussion of that Jewish apostasy see Who Shall Ascend into the Hill of the Lord, First edition, p. 45-74; Second edition, p. 47-65.

{2} Flavious Josephus, Antiquities of the Jews, Book XI, Chapter 1.

{3} John L. McKenzie, The Anchor Bible, Second Isaiah (Garden City, New York, Doubleday, 1968), 72.

{4} McKenzie, Second Isaiah, 76.

{5} Sigmund Mowinckel, He that Cometh, 5.

{6} McKenzie, Second Isaiah, xxiv-xxv.

{7} C. R. North, “Isaiah” in The Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible (2:738-39).

{8} The fact that L.D.S. Bible scholars recognize that the Bible’s Cyrus chapters are continued into Isaiah 48 is evidenced by footnote 14a in the L.D.S. Bible which explains, “Cyrus will do his desire, or wish.”
Some LDS scholars who have addressed the question of Second Isaiah are:
John Bytheway, Isaiah for Airheads (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 2006); Kent P. Jackson, ed., Studies in Scripture, Vol. 4, 1 Kings to Malachi (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1993), 80-85; Victor L. Ludlow, Isaiah, Prophet, Seer, and Poet (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1982), 97, 375-389, 541-548; Hugh Nibley, Since Cumorah, 2nd ed. (Salt Lake City and Provo, Utah: Deseret Book, FARMS, 1988), 121-125, 198-201; Glenn L. Pearson and Reid E. Bankhead, Building Faith with the Book of Mormon (Salt Lake City, Bookcraft, 1986), 41; Mark E. Petersen, Isaiah for Today (Salt Lake City, Deseret Book, 1981), 140-42; Sidney B. Sperry, Book of Mormon Compendium (Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1968), 493-512; James E. Talmage, Conference Report, April 1929, Afternoon Meeting 45-47; Monte S. Nyman, Great are the Words of Isaiah (Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1980), 253-57; Brigham H. Roberts, “Higher Criticism and the Book of Mormon,” Improvement Era, 1911, Vol. XIV. June, 1911. No. 8; Andrew C. Skinner, “Nephi’s Lessons to His People, The Messiah, the Land, and Isaiah 48-49 in 1 Nephi 19-22″ in Donald W. Parry and John W. Welch, eds., Isaiah in the Book of Mormon (Provo, Utah: FARMS, 1998), 95-122.

{9} In the following footnotes, the words in bold italics are different in the Bible and in the Book of Mormon. To show that the differences are between the brass plates and the work of the ancient editors, rather than just between the brass plates and the King James translators, we will sometimes also include translations from the Tanakh, The Holy Scriptures (Philadelphia and Jerusalem: The Jewish Publication Society, 1985); and from John L. McKenzie, The Anchor Bible, Second Isaiah, Introduction, Translation, and Notes (Garden City, New York: Doubleday,1981), 99-100.
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