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Insights into Patterns of Isaiah in the Book of Mormon

I have been working off and on since Sept. 2015 with a particular way of analyzing Isaiah in the Book of Mormon using a couple of spreadsheets. Using this method, I discovered some patterns that reveal some impressive things about the text.

Key factors of analysis:

  • Identifying every single Isaiah reference in the Book of Mormon.
  • Comparing the Book of Mormon references to Avraham Gileadi’s 7-part literary structure.
  • Examining where these Book of Mormon references fall within the structure of Isaiah’s books and Avraham Gileadi’s 7-part literary structure.
  • Exploring how the 7-part structure themes flow through the narrative of the Book of Mormon.

Insights that came out of this process:

  1. There is a chiasm involving the names of the people that quote Isaiah that clusters around the chapters related to salvation and loyalty themes.
  2. Nephi is the only one that quotes from the negative themes (the first 33 chapters of Isaiah’s 66 chapters).
  3. Nephi and Jacob initially focus on the positive themes and then Nephi switches almost exclusively to the negative themes.
  4. The small plates of Nephi contrast 6 of the 7 negative themes with the salvation and loyalty themes.
  5. People in Mormon’s abridgment, namely Abinadi, Jesus, and Moroni, quote exclusively from the salvation themes.

I’ll get into further details involving all these points below with graphics to illustrate these points. First, I need to explain some of Avraham Gileadi’s Isaiah research.

The Bifid Structure

In his fantastic book, The Literary Message of Isaiah, Gileadi begins by explaining the “Bifid Structure” of Isaiah that he says was discovered by William H. Brownlee. A study of the Dead Sea scroll of Isaiah led Brownlee to propose “that Isaiah can be divided into two halves or ‘books,’ one consisting of Isaiah 1-33, the other of Isaiah 34-66.” (p.2) He discovered “seven categories of parallel subject matter in each” (p.2), and that formed the springboard for Gileadi’s doctoral thesis. The seven categories are made up of pairs of antithetical themes that climax with humiliation and exaltation (p.7).

I. Ruin (1-5) Rebirth (34-35)

II. Rebellion (6-8) Compliance (36-40)

III. Punishment (9-12) Deliverance (41-46)

IV. Humiliation (13-23) Exaltation (47)

V. Suffering (24-27) Salvation (48-54)

VI. Disloyalty (28-31) Loyalty (55-59)

VII. Disinheritance (32-33) Inheritance (60-66)

To further help visualize this Bifid Structure, I created the following graphic to illustrate further how these opposing themes emphasize negative or positive context.

This is only scratching the surface of Gileadi’s research and I encourage an exploration of the literature that he has published if you have an interest in the words of Isaiah, especially his translation of Isaiah which is available for free. Next, I’ll detail some of these things I’ve found.

Chiasm of names

I began this whole thing by creating a spreadsheet in Google Docs with the books of Isaiah in chronological order, colorized the Bifid Structure, and then identified the themes. Next, I identified all of the references to Isaiah in the Book of Mormon and placed them in another column next to corresponding Isaiah chapter. In another column, I put the name of the individual who was referencing Isaiah in that instance.

The result is that we can view the Book of Isaiah regarding how individuals in the Book of Mormon quote from it. As we can see, the first 33 chapters of Isaiah are dominated by Nephi. He is most focused on the chapters that related to Gileadi’s themes of ruin, rebellion, punishment, humiliation, and disloyalty. Nephi quotes entire chapters back to back, and it appears that he is very concerned with these judgments of God. He has seen the fall of his people, and I wonder how much of his preaching was influenced by these verses in helping his brothers and the rest of his family return from their apostasy.

Based on the Isaiah passages he quotes, disloyalty is also a big concern of Nephi at the end of 2 Nephi in his commentary on the fall of his people and the last days.

What I discovered next really blew me away, it is by far my favorite discovery to come out of this exercise. In “Book 2” of Isaiah, something astounding jumps out at you; there is a lot of activity around the salvation and loyalty themes in Isaiah 48-55. As I added the color coding for the individuals who are quoting Isaiah, I noticed a distinct pattern. I included the priests of Noah in there because they technically quote Isaiah, but they intended to confound a prophet of God and maintain their wicked state rather than teach anything of value.

The Jesus/Moroni Parallelism

Below, I have extracted the names and indented them so you can see the chiastic structure. First, I want to point out the Jesus/Moroni parallelism that occurs here. The Book of Moroni is not part of Mormon’s abridgment, but it is satisfying to observe how Moroni’s final words echo the same Isaiah chapters as Jesus.

a – Nephi
    b – Jacob
       c.1 – Jesus
       c.2 – Moroni
             d – Abinadi
                e – Nephi
             d – Abinadi
       c.1 – Jesus
       c.2 – Moroni
    b – Jacob
a – Nephi

Moroni combines references from the Isaiah that Jesus quoted into a single verse near the end of his record. These words that were inspired by Isaiah elegantly sum up the message of the Book of Mormon.:

“And awake, and arise from the dust, O Jerusalem; yea, and put on thy beautiful garments, O daughter of Zion; and strengthen thy stakes and enlarge thy borders forever, that thou mayest no more be confounded, that the covenants of the Eternal Father which he hath made unto thee, O house of Israel, may be fulfilled.” (Moroni 10:31)

No offense to Moroni here, but I’m going to pull his name out of the chiasm to narrow the scope strictly to Mormon’s abridgment.

Jacob and Abinadi, witnesses of salvation

These two prophets, Jacob and Abinadi both quote from the salvation themed chapters of Isaiah. Jacob is parallel to Nephi as Abinadi is to Jesus Christ in this chiastic structure.

a – Nephi
    b – Jacob 
       c – Jesus 
             d – Abinadi 
                e – Nephi
             d – Abinadi 
       c – Jesus 
    b – Jacob
a – Nephi

The Nephi Triad

The structure of the chiasm itself both begins and ends with Nephi. At the crux of all these references is a single verse, Isaiah 52:10 which reads: “Jehovah has bared his holy arm in the eyes of all nations, that all ends of the earth may see our God’s salvation.” (Isaiah Institute Translation) According to Gileadi, the arm and salvation referenced in that verse are referring to the Jehovah’s end-time servant and Jehovah God of Israel respectively.

a – Nephi
    b – Jacob
       c – Jesus
             d – Abinadi
                e – Nephi
             d – Abinadi
       c – Jesus
    b – Jacob
a – Nephi

If we break the chiasm into two parallel parts using Nephi as the beginning and end of each segment, Jesus becomes the central figure flanked by Jacob and Abinadi.

Chiasm first half

a – Nephi
    b – Jacob
       c – Jesus 
    b – Abinadi
a – Nephi

Chiasm second half

a – Nephi
    b – Abinadi
       c – Jesus 
    b – Jacob
a – Nephi

Five Book of Mormon witnesses of Isaiah

Nephi, Jacob, and Abinadi act as witnesses of Jesus and his mission, each quoting from Isaiah and encouraging us to read his words. Moroni’s final words are a supporting witness that echoes the Savior by referencing Isaiah. Each of these individuals considered Isaiah significant enough to quote him directly and encouraged others to study his words. Here is what each had to say about Isaiah:

Nephi: “And now I, Nephi, write more of the words of Isaiah, for my soul delighteth in his words. For I will liken his words unto my people, and I will send them forth unto all my children, for he verily saw my Redeemer, even as I have seen him.” (2 Nephi 11:2)

Jacob: “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. And I speak unto you for your sakes, that ye may learn and glorify the name of your God.” (2 Nephi 6:4)

Abinadi: “And after all this, 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 he opened not his mouth. Yea, even so he shall be led, crucified, and slain, the flesh becoming subject even unto death, the will of the Son being swallowed up in the will of the Father. And thus God breaketh the bands of death, having gained the victory over death; giving the Son power to make intercession for the children of men–” (Mosiah 15:6-8)

Jesus: “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)

Moroni: “Search the prophecies of Isaiah. Behold, I cannot write them. Yea, behold I say unto you, that those saints who have gone before me, who have possessed this land, shall cry, yea, even from the dust will they cry unto the Lord; and as the Lord liveth he will remember the covenant which he hath made with them.” (Mormon 8:23)

Isaiah Themes in The Book of Mormon

The next portion of my study involved taking a chronological look at the Book of Mormon and identifying all of the references to Isaiah. I split the Book of Mormon into its two main sections, the small plates of Nephi and Mormon’s abridgment. Doing this visualizes a significant division in how Isaiah is used. The charts below identify the person referencing Isaiah, the location in the Book of Mormon, the location in Isaiah and associated theme.

The first thing you will notice is that Nephi dominates when it comes to references to Isaiah. Initially, he and his brother Jacob seem very focused on the salvation chapters except for one portion of the disloyalty theme by Nephi. After Jacob’s word, however, Nephi quotes heavily from the negative themes of Isaiah with one small jump to the loyalty portion.

Nephi never had a problem speaking with ‘sharpness’ to his brothers and was never afraid to proclaim the consequences of sin boldly. From the fall of Laban to his brothers’ rebellion, he saw the price of disloyalty, pride, and faithlessness. In 1 Nephi where Nephi is quoting from the salvation chapters of Isaiah, they have just arrived in the promised land. Up to this point, all of God’s promises have were fulfilled, and everything is going well. It is a time of rejoicing, and so it isn’t surprising that he seems drawn to these chapters of Isaiah that are salvation-themed.

Jacob starts quoting Isaiah in 2 Nephi after Lehi’s passing, their separation from the Lamanites, and construction of a temple. Again, they are happy and prospering for the most part and so it makes sense that Jacob finds the salvation and loyalty chapters of Isaiah meaningful.

Then Nephi picks up again after Jacob and devotes a significant portion of his record to direct quotations from the ‘negative’ themes. He isn’t pessimistic though; he even says in chapter 12 before he digs into Isaiah “And now I write some of the words of Isaiah, that whoso of my people shall see these words may lift up their hearts and rejoice for all men.” (2 Nephi 11:8) Nephi and Jacob are very similar in that they are fearless in boldly pointing out the dangers of sin. Compare these two references from Nephi and Jacob and notice their similarities in attitude.

Nephi: “And it came to pass that I said unto them that I knew that I had spoken hard things against the wicked, according to the truth; and the righteous have I justified, and testified that they should be lifted up at the last day; wherefore, the guilty taketh the truth to be hard, for it cutteth them to the very center.” (1 Nephi 16:2)

Jacob: “I know that the words of truth are hard against all uncleanness; but the righteous fear them not, for they love the truth and are not shaken.” (Jacob 9:40)

I think that in 2 Nephi we see a stark contrast to Jacob’s words. Nephi saw the downfall of his people and what caused it. My theory is that he trusts in the power of Isaiah’s words to sufficiently warn future generations and save them from an awful fate.

Next, in Mormon’s abridgment, we see quite a different picture. The first to quote from Isaiah is one of king Noah’s wicked priests who didn’t have the best intentions at heart. He was seeking to “question [Abinadi], that they might cross him, that thereby they might have wherewith to accuse him;” (Mosiah 12:19) This priest jumped to Isaiah 52:10 and asked Abinadi what he thought it meant:

Then shall they say,
How comely upon the mountains
are the feet of the messenger announcing peace,
who brings tidings of good,
who heralds salvation,
saying to Zion, Your God reigns!
Hark! Your watchmen lift up their voice;
as one they cry out for joy:
for they shall see eye to eye
when Jehovah returns to Zion.
Jehovah has bared his holy arm
in the eyes of all nations,
that all ends of the earth may see
our God’s salvation. (Isaiah 52:7-10 IIT)

Abinadi came to them prophesying of their destruction if they didn’t repent and they took offense at his apparent ‘doom and gloom’ message. The priest was seeking to denounce Abinadi for not bringing them peace or tidings of good. Abinadi then widens the scope of those verses to explain that although his message seems harsh, it IS a message of peace and good tidings, it is a call to repent and be redeemed. Only Alma gets it though, the rest reject Abinadi, and he was martyred.

Jesus begins to quote Isaiah at the end of 3 Nephi 16 and the beginning of 17 indicates that he has more to say but cannot:

“I perceive that ye are weak, that ye cannot understand all my words which I am commanded of the Father to speak unto you at this time.” (3 Nephi 17:2)

The words which he is commanded to speak to them appear to include several references to Isaiah. However, before he continues, Jesus takes time to pray for the people, heal their sick, bless the little ones, institute the sacrament, give the power to confer the Holy Ghost, and provide bread and wine miraculously. He then starts right where he left off a couple of chapters later in 3 Nephi 20:10-11:

“Behold now I finish the commandment which the Father hath commanded me concerning this people, who are a remnant of the house of Israel. Ye remember that I spake unto you, and said that when the words of Isaiah should be fulfilled—behold they are written, ye have them before you, therefore search them—”

Jesus himself so values Isaiah’s words that he quotes almost all of chapters 52 and 54. What I find interesting is that he skips over chapter 53 which contains many allusions to his own mortal life on earth. In quoting from 52 and 54, the chapters that flank 53 on each side, he almost seems to be stepping over 53 and focusing on the victory he has won since his mortal life and sufferings are now behind him.

Finally, we have Moroni referencing those same chapters but in a single verse, paying tribute not only to Jesus Christ but to the validity of Isaiah’s words and prophecy concerning that which is to come. Moroni is alone now, he is writing to a future audience and understands that they will be served best with a solid understanding of Isaiah’s words while perfect in Christ. (Moroni 10:32)

I feel like I have only scratched the surface at this point. A much deeper analysis of the relationship between the Book of Mormon and the Book of Isaiah. I hope my observations can help add to that study and possibly provide a method for analyzing other scriptures that are quoted by individuals in the Book of Mormon. Moses and the delivery of the children of Israel from the Egyptians is another major theme that recurs and deserves further investigation.

If you would like to view the original spreadsheet that I may update from time to time, you can click here.