Abinadi Re-Imagines Isaiah

589px-Michelangelo,_profeti,_Isaiah_01Our reading this week (Mosiah 6-8 CofC/9-16 LDS) is the beginning of our book within the book. We’re now reading “The Record of Zeniff” which is engraved on one of the two sets of plates mentioned in the Ammon and Limhi story. The record starts in the voice of our first named narrator, who begins his story with a familiar Book of Mormon formula: “I, Zeniff, having been…” This will later recur when the new beginning of the text is dictated and we hear the famous phrase: “I, Nephi, having been born of goodly parents…” (I Nephi 1:1 CofC/1 Nephi 1:1 LDS).[1]  After King Zeniff tells his tale and retires (conferring his kingdom on his son Noah), the voice once again shifts to anonymous narration (as King Noah does not keep the record).

The story within the story is set across the wilderness from Zarahemla, in the Land of Lehi-Nephi (sometimes just called Nephi) and the neighboring lands of Shilom and Shemlon. This week’s reading gives us our first taste of warfare and slaughter between the Lamanites and Nephites and it also introduces the Book of Mormon’s take on the Deuteronomic history embedded in the Bible. Put briefly, the Biblical author/editor(s) who composed the related books of Joshua, Judges, Samuel, and Kings, envisioned a history for Israel which showed that the nation was alternatively punished by disobedience to God and redeemed and blessed by obedience to God. This is most evident in Judges where God uses foreign nations like the Philistines to chastise the Israelites, later calling a judge to deliver the people when they are sufficiently chastened. Similarly, the kings of Israel and Judah in the books of Kings are portrayed as either wicked or righteous depending on their commitment to the Lord.[2]

The parallel in “The Record of Zeniff” comes as the righteous King Zeniff is succeeded by his wicked son, King Noah. As frequently happens to unrighteous kings in the Books of Kings, King Noah is treated to a lengthy rebuke from one of the Lord’s prophets, in this instance a man named Abinadi. After some relatively boilerplate jeremiads where Abinadi promises the Lord is going to do a whole lot of smiting,[3] the priests of King Noah enter the ring to debate. In a move reminiscent of questions posed to Jesus by the scribes and Pharisees, the priests ask Abinadi to interpret a passage of scripture (Isaiah 52:7-10, quoted from the King James Version): “How beautiful upon the mountains are the feet of him that bringeth good tidings…” This is the beginning of a passage that Christians came to read as a prediction of Jesus and it is our first block quote taste of the Book of Mormon’s love of Isaiah.

At first, Abinadi refuses to play that game: if they claim to be priests they ought to know what it means themselves! Instead he asks them what it is that they teach. They reply that they “teach the law of Moses” (Mosiah 7:84 CofC/12:28 LDS) and after some sparring they additionally affirm “that salvation did come by the law of Moses” (Mosiah 7:93 CofC/12:32 LDS). Abinadi rebukes them for not keeping the laws they claim to teach using repeated rhetorical questions that he himself answers: “Have ye done all this…? Nay, ye have not!” “Have ye…? I say unto you: Nay!” in between which he “reads”[4] the complete text of the Ten Commandments from Exodus 20:2-17 (KJV).

The multi-page discourse Abinadi delivers is a second major sermon, which shares some of the same ideas and themes with King Benjamin’s sermon. The recitation of the Ten Commandment leads Abinadi to a higher teaching about salvation:

And now ye [the priests of Noah] have said that salvation cometh by the law of Moses. I say unto you that it is expedient that ye should keep the law of Moses as yet; but I say unto you that the time shall come when it shall no more be expedient to keep the law of Moses. And moreover I say unto you that salvation doth not come by the law alone. And were it not for the atonement which God himself shall make for the sins and iniquities of his people that they must unavoidably perish, notwithstanding the law of Moses. (Mosiah 8:3-5 CofC/13:27-28 LDS)

After quoting an entire chapter of Isaiah (53:1-12 KJV), Abinadi goes on to lay out a Christology similar to that described by King Benjamin:

God himself shall come down among the children of men and shall redeem his people. And because he dwelleth in the flesh, he shall be called the Son of God… and they are one God, yeah the very Eternal Father of heaven and of earth (Mosiah 8:28-29, 31 CofC/15:1-2, 4 LDS).

Abinadi then interprets the Isaiah passage he quoted to predict details of Christ’s ministry:

…after working many mighty miracles among the children of men, he shall be led — yea, even as Isaiah said, as a sheep before the shearer is dumb, so that he opened not his mouth — yea, even so he shall be led, crucified, and slain… (Mosiah 8:33-34 CofC/15:6-7 LDS)

Beyond reiterating the message that salvation comes through Christ’s atonement, the new message here is that all the prophets of the Old Testament predicted Jesus Christ. It’s not just King Benjamin and Abinadi who knew the details and meaning of Jesus ministry, all prophets of the Old Testament knew it. As Abinadi rhetorically asks, “did not Moses prophesy unto them concerning the coming of the Messiah and that God should redeem his people?” (Mosiah 8:11 CofC/13:33 LDS) Sadly he fails to answer that one up with an “I say unto you: Yay!” But he does later assert that “all the holy prophets have prophesied concerning the coming of the Lord” (Mosiah 8:41 CofC/15:11 LDS).

Abinadi then turns back to the passage of Isaiah that the priests had asked him about and re-composes it. The original went:

How beautiful upon the mountains are the feet of him that bringeth good tidings, the publisheth peace; that bringeth good tidings of good, that publisheth salvation.

In Abinadi’s re-imagining this becomes explicitly Christological:

How beautiful upon the mountains are the feet of him that bringeth good tidings, that is the founder of peace, yea, even the Lord who hath redeemed his people, yea, him who hath granted salvation unto his people (Mosiah 8:51-52 CofC/15:18-19 LDS).

This is a point that Christians have attempted to make all the way back to the era when the texts of the New Testament were being composed — as the evangelists repeatedly argued that the Old Testament scripture predicted Jesus Christ. The Book of Mormon continues this tradition of re-imagining the Hebrew prophets by setting Christian interpretation in the mouth of a character who is meant to have lived before Christ.

Temporal Anomalies and the Mechanics of Composition by Dictation

I think the overall concept of a predictive Christian gospel — perhaps a prophetic proto-gospel — is clever. That it was composed after the fact, is actually in keeping with the general character of literary prophecy in scripture. For example, the Biblical Book of Daniel, although set in the 6th century BC, can be fairly precisely dated to the 2nd century BC because of “predictions” (technically postdictions) it makes about the Seleucid king of Syria, Antiochus IV Ephiphanes.[5] Nevertheless, as anybody who’s ever watched a time travel episode in Star Trek knows, talking about the future of the past from the perspective of the present where the past’s future is also now past is complicated. And it’s very easy to mess up your verb tenses.

This happens pretty starkly when Abinadi begins a phrase saying “And now if Christ had not come into the world…” using the pluperfect had from Joseph Smith’s perspective (Mosiah 9:79 CofC/16:6 LDS). Then, before finishing the thought “there could have been no redemption,” we have a tangential explanatory phrase “speaking of things to come as though they had already come” which brings things back to Abinadi’s literary time frame.

This appears to highlight an interesting feature of the Book of Mormon’s composition process. When not quoting (reading directly from) the Bible [recall note 4], Joseph is dictating the text to scribes. Once he’s said it, it’s composed. Fixes have to be made in the next lines as they are orally composed. A regular author could just go back and fix the verb tense “if Christ will not come into the world.” That option isn’t open to Joseph and so the correction takes the form of this odd, supplemental explanation “speaking of things to come as though they had already come.”

Just prior to this, Joseph actually made a much bigger error. In predicting Jesus Chirst, although using exactingly precise details like the crucifixion, Abinadi had nevertheless gone out of his way to name him “the Son of God,” the Messiah, or the Lord. But when explaining that “there cometh a resurrection, even a first resurrection, yea, even a resurrection of those that have been and which are and which shall be, even unto the resurrection of Christ” (Mosiah 8:55 CofC/15:21 LDS) he slips up and mentions “Christ.” As we remember from our last reading, the very heart of King Benjamin’s sermon was the idea that he was going to reveal a name to his people as a reward for their righteousness, possession of which would make them choice above all other exiled Israelites. And now Abinadi, whose story is set a generation before King Benjamin’s story, has revealed the word “Christ” to wicked people he’s in the middle of cursing and rebuking. Once again, the error must have been obvious when dictated, because the following phrase quickly explains “…for so shall he be called.”[6]

Other Observations

• With Mosiah 6 (CofC)/Mosiah 9 (LDS), we’ve come to our first chapter header in the original text: “An account of his people from the time they left the land of Zarahemla until the time that they were delivered out of the hands of the Lamanites.” Although left out of the versification schemes, this header is an actual part of the Book of Mormon text unlike the many additional chapter headers in the LDS version which are, like the chapter headers printed in many Bibles, simple editorial helps added by the publisher.

• We’ve started to encounter original Book of Mormon words beyond names. “Neas” and “sheum” are included among a list of seeds, and “ziff” is twice among lists of precious metals.

• In this reading, we encounter some pretty terrible European American biases in their contemporary view of Native Americans. The Lamanites are described as “a lazy and idolatrous people” (Mosiah 6:15 CofC/9:12 LDS) and as “a wild and ferocious and bloodthirsty people” (Mosiah 6:45 CofC/10:12 LDS). Obviously, I believe these say nothing about actual customs of Native Americans and merely stand to condemn the bigotry of European Americans in the 1820s.  Nevertheless, I want to punt a broader discussion of this at least one more week.


[1] This formula is reminiscent of the introduction to the Book of Tobit “I, Tobit…” (Tobit 1:3), a book of the Apocrypha commonly included in King James Bibles which is notable for the appearance of the angel Raphael and many magic-like miracles. Since the beginning of the book of Mosiah was lost, we don’t know if it might have begun with a similar formula. In fact, the narrator of the surrounding Ammon and Limhi story is still anonymous at this point in the text.

[2] We will have plenty of occasion to discuss the Book of Mormon’s cycle and the Deuteronomic history in weeks to come.

[3] After all the smiting, the Lord promises King Noah’s people that “except they repent, I will utterly destroy them from off the face of the earth. Yet they shall leave a record behind them, and I will preserve them [the record on the plates] for other nations which shall possess the land. Yeah, even this will I do that I may discover [sic] the abominations of this people to other nations” (Mosiah 12:8 LDS). Thus Abinadi’s prophecy of national destruction predicts the colonization and possession of the land by “other nations” and the coming forth of the Book of Mormon.

[4] Abinadi says “And now I read to unto you the remainder of the commandments of God” (Mosiah 7:111 CofC/13:11 LDS).  Given that the quotation is read verbatim from the King James Bible, I believe we can assume that when block quotes are read from the Bible, Joseph switched from oral composition to simply reading from the Bible directly.

[5] This is generally accepted. See the Oxford Companion to the Bible (1993): “The book of Daniel is one of the few books of the Bible that can be dated with precision… The discussion of the date of the book can be summed up as follows. With the possible exception of minor glosses, the book reached its present canonical form in the middle of 164 BCE…” (p. 151)

[6] I’m aware that Christ is not actually a name and that the word is the English version of the Greek word for the word in Hebrew that comes into English as “messiah”. But it’s clear from Abinadi’s phrase “for so he shall be called” that he views the word the way King Benjamin did, “he shall be called Jesus Christ” (Mosiah 3:8 LDS).


6 comments on “Abinadi Re-Imagines Isaiah

  1. vikingz2000 says:

    Very interesting.

    “That it was composed after the fact, is actually in keeping with the general character of literary prophecy in scripture.”

    I have often wondered about this (if I correctly understand what you are saying). In other words, is it possible, or even likely that all of the prophetic descriptions of Christ and the circumstance of His birth in the Book of Isaiah where written in after the fact of the birth of Christ? And if so, how is this possible?

    • John Hamer says:

      No, that’s not quite what I’m saying in the case of Isaiah. In the case of Abinadi’s re-composition of Isaiah, yes, that’s written after the fact. But the prophecies in Isaiah that Christians later interpreted to refer to Jesus were written prior to Jesus’s life. The answer in this case, is that Isaiah (actually for these verses a later pseudepigraphical author writing as though he were Isaiah) is talking about something else (not Jesus) that was immediately relevant to the audience in his own lifetime.

      So we have a few different things going on in scriptural prophecy.

      In the first, we have prophetic utterances that the writer is almost invariably pronouncing for his or her immediate contemporaries. These are not about the far future. For example, the Book of Revelation is about the era of the author’s own time (the end of the 1st century CE) and is not in anyway about our time now or the future. Nevertheless, people throughout time have re-interpreted Revelation as though it does refer to their own time (including people today). This is a misreading of the original author’s intent. Revelation today can be read responsibly for its author’s theological ideas, but to get at it one must scrape off millennia of unproductive interpretation. This is the primary type of prophecy that we have going with Isaiah and Jesus: Isaiah is not predicting Jesus. Christians later re-interpreted Isaiah’s writings about something different as though they predicted Jesus.

      A second mechanism that sometimes operates is that people deliberately fulfill old prophecy. Again, the prophet in this case did not actually anticipate that the fulfillment would happen in the way it happened, but someone made it happen to fulfill their interpretation of an old prophecy. This happened, for example, in the case where Joseph Smith predicted the apostles would depart from the Far West temple site on a certain date; in the intervening time the Mormons got kicked out of the state, so the apostles snuck back in in order to fulfill the prophecy. This is a case of deliberate fulfillment and some of this may have been going on with Jesus, to the extent that the historical Jesus felt he was fulfilling prophecy. (I tend to think this actually comes from the evangelists, not Jesus.)

      Then third, we also have literary prophecy where scripture writers insert predictions in the past by writing sacred stories set in the past. This occurs with books like Daniel, the Abrahamic and Mosaic covenants, and (embarrassingly) the Davidic covenant. I say embarrassingly because shortly after the time when the Davidic covenant — the promise that the house of David would never fall — was written into past stories, the house actually fell. In other words, the prophecy was valid in the literary past, but once the actual future starts to kick in, we’ve entered the unknowable.

  2. vikingz2000 says:

    This is great stuff to be aware of, i.e., three kinds of prophetic utterances/writings. And ‘literary *prophecy*?!! We all know about and accept the intentions of ‘poetic license’, however me thinks ‘prophetic license’ in sacred canon is taking things a bit too far.

    Not to belabor this more than necessary (because you have already taken some of your good time to respond), if I was having a discussion about this with a Biblical scholar (self-taught or formally so) and say that, “….the Book of Revelation is about the era of the author’s own time (the end of the 1st century CE) and is not in anyway about our time now or the future.” and he or she were to respond with, “Prove it!” what could I say to defend my position?

    P.S. Then who or what was this “…. pseudepigraphical author” writing about if not Jesus, e.g., will be born of a virgin (Isaiah 7:14)j; will have a Galilean ministry (Isaiah 9:1,2), etc.?

    • John Hamer says:

      This early part is real Isaiah not pseudo-Isaiah. The references in the verses you cite are to a literal Davidic King (messiah) of the type that existed in Isaiah’s era, not a figurative “messiah” like later Israelites began to re-interpret scripture to seek and imagine after the actual Davidic kingship was extinguished. Although we can’t say conclusively, many scholars suggest that Isaiah is speaking here of King Hezekiah.

      Regarding the Book of Revelation, this requires an entire book to “prove.” Quick summary: the author is talking about the conditions in the contemporary seven churches of Asia Minor (Turkey) that he addresses at the beginning of the book. His message is a theological one which is actually designed to give them hope in the face of current crises and persecutions. The lineage of the modern Fundamentalist interpretation can be tracked in the historical record, originating the Middle Ages.

      • vikingz2000 says:

        Thank you, John. I am realizing more and more that there is so much to be constantly aware of rather than just take someone at their word (what they declare).

  3. Eric says:

    Thanks John,

    I’m fascinated by the idea of Joseph reinventing this method of scriptural reinterpretation, emendation, or wholesale invention, unaware that the Bible – which I would assume he understood as historically accurate – was created, at least in parts, by similar methods.

    I’m reminded of the example in Matthew 21:5, which describes Jesus entering Jerusalem astride both an ass and a colt. A strikingly unusual means of conveyance, but fortuitously linking Jesus to the King mentioned in Zechariah 9:9.

    Perhaps closer to Joseph’s project,was the Apostle John (or members of his community) who recorded Jesus as saying,”For had ye believed Moses, ye would have believed me: for he wrote of me.” (John 5:46).

    One could argue that Joseph took this approach to a whole new level. He actually went ahead and produced the text Jesus was referring to (not to mention the Book of Mormon). On the other hand, perhaps Joseph wasn’t that different from biblical authors, since the origins of their writings are largely unknown.

    What I also find interesting is how prophets leverage their innovations by drawing on the authority of their established tradition – by appropriating what is already implicitly accepted by their faith communities. Their projects would not have succeeded by free invention. Those that attempted it did not survive social selection – conservatism must be honored by the innovator. Of course, free neither free invention or conservatism is inherently good or bad or indicators or the true or the false.

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