Deutero-Isaiah in the Book of Mormon: A Literary Analysis (pt. 1)

Isaiah didn’t write the book of Isaiah.  The Bible connects the book with a prophetic figure Isaiah-ben Amoz who lived during the latter half of the eighth century BCE.  However, for many years, scholars have recognized that the Book of Isaiah is an amalgamation of diverse literary sources combined and subsequently attributed to this 8th century Judean prophet.  The historical Isaiah lived during the time of the Assyrian invasions of Israel and Judea, but much of the book was composed at a much later date.

It’s difficult to determine how much of the book Isaiah himself wrote.  Many scholars believe that even the first thirty-three chapters contain various literary sources produced by Judean scribes who lived after the historical figure Isaiah.  Chapters 34-35 derive from the same historical era as chapters 40-66, the end of the Babylonian exile and during the postexilic period.  Chapters 36-39 present an account involving the man Isaiah.  But Isaiah himself clearly did not write these chapters.  Instead, they were taken from the earlier Book of Kings.

When read synchronically, there is a major thematic shift in Isaiah 40 that signifies a new prophetic call narrative.  The audience changes from prexillic to post-exilic Judeans.  Scholars refer to this new literary section as Deutero or “Second” Isaiah to distinguish it from the first half of the book.  Chapters 40-55 are believed to have been written by an anonymous Judean scribe.  This section depicts the end of the Babylonian exile and the rise of the Persian King Cyrus (546-539 BCE).

The Book of Mormon relies heavily upon Deutero-Isaiah.  Some of its chapters are not only quoted almost verbatim throughout the book, but Deutero-Isaiah clearly influenced many of the Book of Mormon sermons.  In this blog post, I’m not going to discuss the implications that this perspective holds for the Book of Mormon’s historical claims, as important as that topic is.  Instead, I would like to bracket the issue for now and explore some of the ways in which the Book of Mormon uses Deutero-Isaiah to convey profound literary concepts.  In so doing, I will treat Book of Mormon characters as real (literary) figures.

At the end of his life, the Book of Mormon prophet Lehi called his children together and delivered a series of final sermons.  Facing the prospect of his own mortality, Lehi encouraged his sons to wake up and avoid spiritual death.   While facing physical death, Lehi used resurrection imagery in his final effort to inspire his sons:

O that ye would awake;

awake from a deep sleep,

yea, even from the sleep of hell,

and shake off the awful chains by which ye are bound,

which are the chains which bind the children of men,

that they are carried away captive down to the eternal gulf of misery

and woe.

Awake! and arise from the dust,

and hear the words of a trembling parent,

whose limbs ye must soon lay down in the cold and silent grave,

from whence no traveler can return;

a few more days and I go the way of all the earth…

Awake, my sons; put on the armor of righteousness.

Shake off the chains with which ye are bound,

and come forth out of obscurity,

and arise from the dust (2 Nephi 1:13-14, 23).[1]

Lehi’s poem clearly draws its inspiration from Isaiah 52, a poetic text that seeks to reverse the sufferings experienced by the exilic community through a promise of royal restoration:

Awake, awake;

put on thy strength, O Zion;

Put on thy beautiful garments,

O Jerusalem, the holy city:

for henceforth

there shall no more come into thee

the uncircumcised and the unclean.

Shake thyself from the dust; arise, and sit down,

O Jerusalem:

loose thyself from the bands of thy neck,

O captive daughter of Zion (Isaiah 52:1-2)

Lehi’s sermon features the dual imperative “awake, awake,” the image of being loosed from bands, arising from the dust, and putting on armor of righteousness/beautiful garments.  The Book of Mormon sermon, therefore, clearly echoes this poetic refrain from Isaiah 52.

The passage in Isaiah is a reversal.  Captive Judah will arise from the dust and sit down upon a royal throne.  In contrast, her oppressor, Babylon, will undergo the exact opposite experience:

Come down and sit in the dust,

O virgin daughter of Babylon!

Sit on the ground

There is not throne

O daughter of the Chaldeans (Isaiah 47:1).

By drawing upon this Isaianic imagery, Lehi seems to be calling his sons to wake up and assume a position of kingship within his family.  To rise from the dust and leave behind “obscurity” is to assume the role of spiritual leader in Lehi’s clan.   With this assertion, the Book of Mormon prophet invokes a subtle biblical creation theme connecting the image of dust with a position of obscurity, i.e. the opposite of royal imagery.

In a fascinating study analyzing this motif, Old Testament theologian Walter Brueggemann once argued that the Bible features a connection between rising from the dust and royal enthronement. “To be taken from the dust,” noted Bruggemann, “means to be elevated from obscurity to royal office and to return to dust means to be deprived of that office and returned to obscurity.”[2] Interpreting Lehi’s sermon through the lens of biblical dust imagery provides for an interesting reading.  Like Brugemann, the Book of Mormon sermon uses the word “obscurity” in connection with dust.  It appears as a description for what Lehi hoped his sons would leave behind in assuming roles of prominent spiritual leadership.

This final plea from a dying parent had a deep emotional impact upon Nephi.  Following his narration of his father’s death, Nephi presents his own poetic refrain.  The poem displays sincere grief over the loss of a father.  Drawing specifically upon the imperative “awake,”  Nephi’s poem suggests that he longs to follow Lehi’s counsel through a repetition of this leitwort or “theme-word”:

Awake, my soul! No longer droop in sin.

Rejoice, O my heart,

and give place no more for the enemy of my soul (2 Nephi 4:28).

From a religiopolitical perspective, reading these two poems synchronically suggests a direct line of continuation between Lehi and Nephi.  Nephi appears as the successor who accepted Lehi’s final petition to “awake.”  This point is strengthened when readers reach the first Book of Mormon sermons given after Lehi’s death.

Following Lehi’s passing, his family split into two factions known as Nephites and Lamanites (2 Nephi 5).  The Nephite group was led by the fourth son in the clan, Nephi, who became king over one division. In the first sermon delivered to this new Nephite clan, Jacob, the brother of Nephi, tells his audience that as a consecrated priest, he received a sacred commission from Nephi to speak to the new clan.  Significantly, this sermon delivered at the beginning of the Nephite nation draws specifically upon the Book of Isaiah:

“And now, behold, I would speak unto you concerning things which are, and which are to come; wherefore, I will read you the words of Isaiah. And they are the words which my brother has desired that I should speak unto you (2 Nephi 6:4)

The Isaiah text that Nephi assigned his brother to speak about on this occasion was chapters 50-52:1-2.  The initial Nephite sermon therefore concludes by quoting the exact Isaianic passage that inspired Lehi’s final sermon, Isaiah 52:1-2:

Awake, awake;

put on thy strength, O Zion;

Put on thy beautiful garments,

O Jerusalem, the holy city:

for henceforth

there shall no more come into thee

the uncircumcised and the unclean.

Shake thyself from the dust; arise, and sit down,

O Jerusalem:

loose thyself from the bands of thy neck,

O captive daughter of Zion (Isaiah 52:1-2)

Though these verses occur in Lehi’s sermon as a mere literary echo, they appear in Jacob’s sermon as a direct citation.  From a literary perspective, this transition from Lehi’s final sermon calling for his sons to awake and rise from the dust as leaders (kings), suggests that Nephi, the new familial leader of one segment of the divided Lehite clan, accepted his father’s final charge.  It also provides a direct line of religious authority and focus– from Lehi, the Book of Mormon’s initial prophetic figure, to Nephi/Jacob, men that God raised from the dust to restore order following Lehi’s death.



[1] I have adopted the poetic format given by Grant Hardy in The Book of Mormon: A Reader’s Edition (Chicago: Illinois Press, 2005), 62-63.

[2] Walter Brueggemann, “From Dust to Kingship,” ZAW 84 (1972): 2.

 

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