Bind up the testimony, seal the teaching among my disciples. I will wait for Yahweh, who is hiding his face from the house of Jacob, and I will hope in him. (Isaiah 8:16-17)
This cryptic command reveals the earliest stage of the textual history of the Book of Isaiah. The author had disciples, with whom he deposited his teachings for the future, and continued in silence, waiting for Yahweh. Isaiah became a prophet emeritus. It appears that this verse inspired Waiting for Godot, the 1949 play by Samuel Beckett. Here Beckett turns the verse into an existentialist metaphor. There is a tone of both resignation and distant hope in waiting for God.
In both Daniel 12:4 and Isaiah 8, the prophets are told to “seal” their teachings for the future. In these two instances, seal ( חָתַם) probably refers to hiding, or safe securing of their teachings. But what did Isaiah seal? What was the medium of his teaching that he left with his followers? In the early nineteenth century, biblical commentaries discussed the nature of the writing materials that Isaiah used to preserve his message for followers. Among the more prominent theories was that Isaiah wrote his message on brass tablets or brass plates of some sort. (See Protestant commentaries by Lowth, Clarke, and Scott.) Early Mormons shared this view. (See EMS vol. 1 no. 8, 116)
No metal plates from the eighth century BCE containing words of Isaiah have ever been discovered. Thus, the Book of Mormon and the Brass Plates of Laban were precisely what the audience of the Book of Mormon would have expected—the word of God on metal plates to Restore what was lost. The Book of Mormon relates the story of Lehi, a contemporary of Jeremiah, who leaves Jerusalem for America with a set of Brass Plates, containing prophetic writings, including a version of our current Book of Isaiah.
I argue here that the records that serve as the source of the text of Isaiah in early Mormon scriptures were not Gold Plates or Brass Plates, but rather Paper Plates—texts that served as sources of prophetic creativity in Joseph Smith’s rereading of Isaiah. I say “rereading” because neither these Paper Plates nor Joseph Smith’s prophetic midrash contain an original text nor the authorial intent of Isaiah. The Paper Plates from which the early Mormon text of Isaiah was drawn were the King James version of the Bible, the Septuagint in English (LXX), the Isaiah Targum, and nineteenth century biblical commentaries. Early Mormonism used these Paper Plates as part of Mormon midrash, as a new modern rereading of Isaiah for a modern audience. This prophetic midrash changed the text and thus interpreted it in new creative ways for its audience at the end of the world. This rereading can be described as Christocentric, apocalyptic, and Restorationist. Above all, it was an excellent marketing strategy for a populist religion against learned professors of religion.