Review of Joseph M. Spencer, The Vision of All: Twenty-Five Lectures on Isaiah in Nephi’s Record (Salt Lake City: Greg Kofford Books, 2016).
In his introduction to the Book of Isaiah a couple years ago, my Gospel Doctrine teacher (inspired by this post) compared Isaiah’s writings to Sergei Rachmaninoff’s Third Piano Concerto. The beauty, complexity, and sheer ecstasy of the piece he said were similar to the layers of abundant wisdom and meaning found within the pages of Isaiah. As the post linked above describes it,
I love this piece more every time I listen to it, because I pick up something new each time…There are all kinds of music to enjoy. Some of it is just fun, and very easy to understand, like, “She loves you, yeah, yeah, yeah. She loves you, yeah, yeah, yeah.” The message is: She loves him. A three-year-old could figure it out. But this concerto isn’t lightweight, wallpaper-type music that you can listen to in the background while you are doing something else. It requires rapt attention. You have to sit down in front of the speakers. You have to close your eyes. You have to be uninterrupted.
Isaiah is to gospel literature as Rachmaninoff’s Third Concerto is to music. Isaiah requires commitment. You don’t just breathe it in; you have to sit down at the table with your knife and fork. But, like the concerto, you can also enjoy it and gain something from it in your very first reading, and each time you come back to it, you can pick up a little more.
The piece itself (check it out above) is about 40 minutes or so. As my Gospel Doctrine teacher wrapped up the analogy, he lamented that he had not brought in a sample to listen to (I don’t recall if there were technical issues). Nonetheless, he encouraged the class to listen to the concerto when they returned home in order to gain the full impact of the comparison. In passing, he remarked, “I only listened to about ten minutes of it…” In response to this minor confession, I quipped, “Just like Isaiah…” The comment provoked laughter (I thought it was rather clever myself), largely, I imagine, because everyone knew it was true: we all know that Isaiah is important. We all know we should spend more time delving into it. We all know there are deep spiritual truths awaiting us if we would just take the time and effort to really immerse ourselves in Isaiah’s words.
Worse yet, Isaiah is a major player in the Book of Mormon (Jeffrey R. Holland lists him as one of the “early witnesses” of the Savior in the Book of Mormon in his Christ and the New Covenant). Failing to understand Isaiah is likely to distort our interpretation and comprehension of the Book of Mormon itself, particularly the writings of Nephi. This makes grasping Isaiah an imperative for Latter-day Saints. Most, however, have no idea where to begin. There are volumes upon volumes written on Isaiah. The sheer mass of literature is overwhelming to the expert, let alone the layman. Furthermore, only a tiny fraction of this literature has any connection to the Book of Mormon. This in turn tends to be highly conservative and at times goes against the grain of mainstream biblical scholarship. It is unlikely that even those members familiar with the scholarship on Isaiah have carefully analyzed the nuances, subtle changes, and structural organization of Nephi’s reading.
Enter Joseph Spencer.
Spencer has already made some incredibly impressive contributions to Mormon Studies, including Book of Mormon research. For example, his An Other Testament is one of the most engaging and enlightening books on the Book of Mormon I have ever read. And yet, his latest from Greg Kofford Books–The Vision of All: Twenty-five Lectures on Isaiah in Nephi’s Record–surpasses it. Spencer is one of the most careful readers of scripture in Mormon Studies and this book puts his skill on full display. While a stellar combination of close textual analysis, biblical scholarship, and theology, Spencer nonetheless makes the subject(s) accessible to a wider audience by writing in lecture format rather than a line-by-line commentary (which he believes “gets dull fast and alienates most readers”). As he explains in the preface,
This format has forced me to keep my writing informal or even chatty, as well as relatively clear, even though I’m dealing with topics of great depth and complexity. It’s also forced me to leave off using footnotes and other distracting scholarly tools. (I do mention occasional books and articles of interest in the course of discussion, and full bibliographic information for all of these can be found at the end of the book. But that’s the only piece of scholarly apparatus in the whole volume.) Finally this format has forced me to keep focused, to get to the point quickly, and to leave out overly technical points of discussion (pg. viii).
Spencer’s book is evidence of the kind of deep, intricate reading that can be accomplished through constant study of the text. He is aware of how poorly Latter-day Saints engage Isaiah, even within commentaries. Case in point, he writes,
[I]n their best-selling commentary, Robert L. Millet and Joseph Fielding McConkie initially hold off any direct commentary on the Isaiah passages in 2 Nephi 12–24. Before engaging the actual text, they provide some reflections on why the Nephites quoted Isaiah, outline a number of “suggestions for better understanding Isaiah” drawn from 2 Nephi 25:1–8, and say a bit about Isaiah’s importance more generally. All this takes them five pages. They then provide their actual commentary on the Isaiah chapters, which also takes them five pages. In the end, they write fewer words on what Isaiah actually says than they do their commentary of how one might go about reading Isaiah (pg. 228).
Spencer, on the other hand, spends multiple chapters dissecting the sections of Isaiah quoted in the Book of Mormon and follows them up with how various prophetic voices within the Book of Mormon–namely Nephi, Lehi, and Jacob–interact with Isaiah’s text. One of the major strengths of Spencer’s analysis is his willingness to let the different voices (and textual variants thanks to Royal Skousen’s work) speak independently, even if they are sometimes in conflict. For instance, Spencer finds that Lehi’s usage of Isaiah is focused on “the past, a past that helps to explain the general human condition.” In contrast, “Nephi finds in Isaiah strong anticipations of the future, of a future focused indelibly on the Abrahamic covenant” (pg. 69). Nephi is also engaged in the project of systematically “likening” Isaiah’s words whereas Lehi “seems to see in Isaiah a looser collection of prophetic materials that help to articulate a rather general picture of what we’d call the plan of salvation. Perhaps we could say that Lehi seems to read Isaiah in something like the way we tend to read scripture: as a collection of inspired statements that, read carefully and correctly, help us to see the basic outline of the plan of salvation and our place in it” (pg. 69). He also allows Isaiah to speak for Isaiah, placing his writings in their proper historical context (he mentions the problem of Deutero-Isaiah, though he doesn’t necessarily seek to resolve it). Spencer recommends that the reader draw on both liberal and conservative Isaiah scholars in order to get the full breadth of the scholarly discussions. In what will likely be a rather provocative statement among lay members of the Church, Spencer urges readers to “stop looking for Jesus in Isaiah. We’ve been trained by a long Christian tradition to think that the prophets of the Hebrew Bible frequently spoke in anticipation of Christ. And the result has been a Christological approach to understanding Isaiah” (pg. 33). The problem, of course, is that many of the supposedly messianic prophecies in Isaiah pertained to and were often fulfilled during the time of Isaiah. Rather than reading Christ (or even the Charles Anthon story) back into Isaiah’s narrative, we need to see how Christ fits into and is informed by the narrative Isaiah is actually telling. It is out of this kind of rigorous analysis that an especially rich theology on a grander scale begins to emerge. “[T]he whole point of Nephi’s record,” according to Spencer, “is to get us to read Isaiah carefully” (pg. 47). But why? Spencer beautifully summarizes:
The purpose of the Book of Mormon, according to Nephi’s vision, is to refocus Christianity on its Abrahamic foundations, to restore to Christianity the idea that the Gentiles aren’t a kind of replacement Israel, but that they’re to be grafted into the everlasting covenant that’s still vouchsafed to Jacob’s children…Take a look at what the very title page of the Book of Mormon has to say about its primary purpose. It’s “to show unto the remnant of the house of Israel how great things the Lord hath done for their fathers, and that they may know the covenants of the Lord, that they are not cast off forever.” …It’s this vision of the Book of Mormon’s purpose (to save Christianity from itself!) that drew Nephi’s attention to Isaiah. Nephi found…the most brilliant available biblical explanation of the complex relationship between covenantal Israel and non-covenantal Gentiles. The book that bears Isaiah’s name is nothing if it isn’t a kind of systematic attempt to make sense of Abraham’s covenant in the richest way possible (pg. 11).
Those under the Abrahamic covenant are “to rework the very order of the world, replacing the national with the familial, war with peace” (pgs. 80-81). And in Isaiah we see a theme of universality: “Israel is to be redeemed by the Gentiles, and the Gentiles are to find a place in the covenant for their redemption of Israel…And that’s the direct fulfillment of the Abrahamic covenant, which Nephi…quotes directly from Genesis 12” (pgs. 113-114).
It is not possible for me to do justice to Spencer’s efforts. The detail and the insights about Nephi’s structuring of Isaiah throughout his writings are nearly impossible to summarize. But for me, it is the grand historical narrative and purpose that materialize from Spencer’s discussions that are the most important:
We ought to be reading Isaiah as providing a prophetic window onto the long, complex history of Israel. And we’ve seen…that the status and history of Israel are organized around a few salient points. It’s crucial, apparently, that we keep an eye on the theme of the remnant–that is, on the idea that God uses history (and not usually happy history) to winnow the covenant people down to a holy remnant that’s fully ready to assume the task he’s assigned to Israel. And it’s crucial, apparently, that we keep an eye on the idea of the prophecy being written and then sealed up for the use of a later generation–the holy remnant precisely. And it’s crucial, apparently, that we watch for how the eventual redemption of Israel or of the remnant serves to put God’s power and faithfulness on display before the whole world, as a way of getting the Gentiles involved in the covenant that was given for their benefit even if it wasn’t given directly to them. All this is central to Isaiah’s prophecies, as Nephi sees them (pg. 290).
Nephi patterns Isaiah’s history atop of the future history of the Nephite/Lamanite people. “Gentiles” become narrowly associated with European Christianity, while “Israel” represents the remnant of the destroyed Nephite civilization. “The destruction of Jerusalem becomes the decimation of latter-day Lamanites, and the exile becomes the subjugation of native American peoples to European power and culture. But then comes redemption, with at least some of the Gentiles being called to turn Christianity back to its Jewish and covenantal roots. Their hearts are turned to the remnant of New-World Israel, and they give themselves to the work of systematically redeeming that remnant. And so they’re given a chance to get involved, themselves, in the covenant. All this is, of course, what we’d call the Restoration, which is still very much underway” (pg. 296).
This last bit should give Latter-day Saints pause. The modern-day Restoration is seen by Nephi as the equivalent of the Isaianic prophecy regarding the Gentiles’ redemption of Israel: “Thus saith the Lord God, “Behold, I will lift up mine hand to the Gentiles, and set up my standard to the people; and they shall bring thy sons in their arms, and thy daughters shall be carried upon their shoulders. And kings shall be thy nursing fathers, and their queens thy nursing mothers: they shall bow down to thee with their face toward the earth, and lick up the dust of thy feet; and thou shalt know that I am the Lord: for they shall not be ashamed that wait for me” (Isa. 49:22–23). A couple years ago, Christianity Today ran a cover story on New Testament scholar and theologian N.T. Wright. The article’s author explained that “[w]hen Wright speaks, preaches, or writes, folks say they see Jesus, and lives are transformed. A pastor friend of mine describes a church member walking into his office, hands trembling as he held a copy of Wright’s Surprised by Hope: Rethinking Heaven, the Resurrection, and the Mission of the Church. “If this book is true,” he said, “then my whole life has to change.”” Similarly, if Spencer’s understanding of Isaiah in Nephi’s writings is correct, then there is much that needs to change pertaining to the urgency of the latter-day work.
The Vision of All is easily one of the best books in the genre. Not only is it top-notch scholarship, but it’s also a profound and enriching theological treatise on the role of the Restoration in covenantal history as well as an implicit call to the responsibilities associated with this role. In short, it is a reminder of why we study the scriptures in the first place.