"Levels of Understanding" in Isaiah(?)

"Levels of Understanding" in Isaiah(?) October 7, 2010

Thank you for the invitation to participate here at FPR.

My post comes out of the intersection created by my ongoing academic training and attending Gospel Doctrine class on a somewhat regular basis. (The fact that I recently spent a year teaching a Stake Institute class on Isaiah also influenced my thoughts in this post.)

Last week’s lesson was from lesson #37 “Thou Hast Done Wonderful Things” (Isaiah 22; 24-26; 28-30). The instructor did an excellent job of attempting to situate these chs. in their historical context. She even mentioned that chs. 24-27 (the so called “Isaiah Apocalypse”) are likely post-exilic and thus don’t date to the historical Isaiah! All of this was done despite the fact that the manual fails to provide any shred of historical background to any of the Isaiah material in this lesson. She began the class by sharing a quotation from Camille Fronk Olson who states:

“I had been teaching released-time seminary for about five years when a student I had taught when she was a sophomore came back to visit me when she was a senior in high school. After a few pleasantries, she informed me that she was no longer attending The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints; she told me she now attended a Protestant church in the area. I felt as though she wanted me to react with alarm when she made this announcement, so I remained calm and simply said, “Oh, that is interesting, what led you to that decision?” Her answer shook me from my calm demeanor because it was not at all what I expected. She said, “When I attended my LDS ward, we talked about being honest, the importance of reading scriptures and getting married in the Temple, and the importance of a living prophet, but I never heard much about Jesus Christ. In this new church I attend, Jesus is the heart and soul of all their sermons.’. . . I made a silent vow that day that I would never teach a lesson or give a talk without making a connection between the topic or scripture block and the Atonement of Jesus Christ.”[1]

I (or at least part of me) feel that Olson, my Gospel Doctrine instructor, and the manual are correct in pointing out that our lessons, talks, etc could stand to be more Christ-centered as opposed to being centered on many good, but by no means ultimate, subjects. But just then the critical HB student part of me pipes up and begins to wonder how we can effectively present HB passages if the ONLY thing we ever do is read Jesus back into the HB. Isaiah is a particularly good case to look at because of all the “messianic” prophesying going on (or so the chapter headings say). This “Christianizing” of the HB text is certainly not unique or original in any way to Mormonism; nevertheless, I speak from a Mormon perspective.

Though the manual provides 9 scriptures (all dealing with Christ of course) from Isaiah to assist the instructor in presenting Isaiah chs. 22-30, I consider here only the first suggested scripture: Isa 22:22.

The Manual’s title, “The Savior opens the door to Heavenly Father’s presence,” picks up on several catch words to latch (pun intended) onto, particularly in an LDS setting; however, a full application of these verses to Christ seems to fall apart at some point.

Isaiah 22 is the next to the last ch. in a section of Isaiah (chs. 13-23) often identified as the “oracles against the nations.” The superscription of ch. 22 explains that this oracle concerns “the valley of vision.” While this phrase is obscure, details later in the ch. suggest that this oracle is directed against Judah. Beginning at v. 15 a self-aggrandizing official in Hezekiah’s court by the name of Shebna is portrayed as being demoted for an unspecified offense. One “Eliakim son of Hilkiah” is called to take up the fallen official’s place. He is thus clothed with a robe and bound with a sash (v. 20). Furthermore, “authority” is committed to him and “the key of the house of David” is placed on his shoulder” (vv. 21-22). “[Eliakim] shall open, and no one shall shut; he shall shut, and no one shall open. I will fasten him like a peg in a secure place (KJV: “a nail in a sure place”), and he will become a throne of honor…And they will hang on him the whole weight of his ancestral house…” (vv. 22-24).

Many “types and shadows” of Christ can be read into these verses from the royal (and divine?) nature of robes and sashes to “authority” and “a key” that could be interpreted as sealing power (cf Matt 16:19; Helaman 10:7; D&C 7:7; 27:13). The perceived references to the resurrection can also be seen as powerful descriptions of an assured atonement. All of these “types and shadows” were perceived and commented upon by students in class.

Now comes the “but wait a minute..” part: it seems important to remember the nature of these verses, namely that they are an oracle given to Judah with the message that their “shouting from the housetops” may be a little premature in light of present/future events. Even when Shebna is replaced by (the more upright?) Eliakim, the LORD pulls out a last minute surprise by stating that, “the peg that was fastened in a secure place will give away…and the load that was on it will perish” (v. 25). The parallels of an anointed savior who performs an eternal atonement seem to fail at this point. That would change the message of the atonement a bit: even though Christ has lived/died for you, it will all come crashing down “for the LORD has spoken it” (v. 25).

So what to do? The instructor utilized a “levels of understanding” approach to Isaiah; thus, one can read Isaiah on multiple levels (e.g. historical, allegorical, etc.). This is certainly the route that I took with my Institute class on Isaiah since I wanted to delve into 8th-6th century B.C.E. Judah while many of them (and who could blame them based on the traditional ways of reading Isaiah) wanted to talk about Second Coming, Jackson County, food storage, bomb shelters, helicopters, and trains. I found that the “levels of understanding” approach allowed my students to know what context we were talking about so, for example, Isa 14:7 could be referring to Jesus on one level, but on another level it was part of a larger sequence of the naming of children being used to foretell (or forth-tell?) the happenings in ancient Judah.

This method brought about satisfactory results for the most part, but I am still open to other/better ways of approaching this issue. What say ye readers of FPR?


[1] Camille Fronk Olson, Joseph Smith Lecture given at Brigham Young University-Hawaii, 10 Nov 2009. Lecture can be found at: http://devotional.byuh.edu/node/386. Accessed 29 September 2010.

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