“The Lord God Shall Have Camped Against Them”

Brant Gardner

Text:Nephi is rephrasing two Isaiah passages:

And I will camp against thee round about, and will lay siege against thee with a mount, and I will raise forts against thee. (Isa. 29:3)
And thou shalt be brought down, and shalt speak out of the ground, and thy speech shall be low out of the dust, and thy voice shall be, as of one that hath a familiar spirit, out of the ground, and thy speech shall whisper out of the dust.
Moreover the multitude of thy strangers shall be like small dust, and the multitude of the terrible ones shall be as chaff that passeth away: yea, it shall be at an instant suddenly. (Isa. 29:4–5)

Nephi’s paraphrase reshapes Isaiah so that it fits into his current exegesis. This approach is typical of a high-context culture. The speaker assumes that his audience will understand his references. (See Behind the Text: Chapter 1, “Text and Context,” for more information on high-context cultures.) These verses begin a long interaction between Nephi’s vision and a text from Isaiah that was not copied directly. As Nephi develops this next section of his final witness, he interweaves his own understanding with that of Isaiah. He will quote or reference Isaiah 29:3–24, but he will not use it as a foundation text as he has done with the chapters that he inserted. Instead, he will completely incorporate this text into his vision, making Isaiah’s prophecy part of his own. This process is very much like that of quoting one song in another. The new song is a complete creation, but part of the art of its creation is the new perspective it gives on an older and more familiar song. This technique requires that the audience be familiar with the older song so that the artistry of the combination may be appreciated.

Comparing Isaiah’s and Nephi’s accounts, Victor L. Ludlow notes: “The additional material provided by Nephi in 2 Nephi 26–27 makes the Book of Mormon rendition of Isaiah 29 significantly longer than the biblical text. While Isaiah 29 contains only twenty-four verses in the King James Version, Nephi’s version contains fifty-four (2 Ne. 26:15–27, 35).” He then notes that there are two possibilities: that Isaiah’s original text on the brass plates contained the longer sections, or that Nephi used “inspired insight” to add the sections. Ludlow suggests: “Some combination of the two probably provides and accurate representation of the text.”

I suggest that the answer lies wholly in Ludlow’s second option. Nephi is not entering Isaiah’s text as a copy as he did in earlier chapters. He is weaving his own vision into Isaiah’s words. In Nephi’s original recouching of his vision of the future, he saw his people’s future (1 Ne. 13:34–36). The earlier account of the vision is not nearly as specific, but it was also a record of a situation that long preceded Nephi’s writings and perhaps his understanding of their role in his people’s history. Now, as part of recouching of his vision against Isaiah’s prophecies, Nephi sees clearly the connections that so many Saints since Joseph Smith’s time have seen. Nephi uses the Isaiah passages that he sees as directly relevant to his vision to provide a more complete picture of that visionary revelation.

History: Although Nephi is citing Isaiah’s apocalyptic prophecy concerning Israel, it is also accurate for Nephi’s people. His description of the Gentile siege may or may not have been figurative for Israel; but for the Nephites, it was prophetically prescient. The Lamanites were the equivalent for Nephi’s people of the Gentiles for Isaiah. “Lamanites” had become the designation for everyone aligned against the Nephites as early as Jacob 1:14 (and probably earlier than that text was written) and would certainly have included a large number of local people with a political and religious culture in competition with that of the Nephites.

In addition to the Lamanite armies, Nephi’s quotation of Isaiah’s forts may also have been literal. Mesoamerican archaeology has uncovered fortified cities, and the militarized Early Classic period (A.D. 250–600, corresponding with the Nephites’ demise) could easily be seen as a time where “forts” were raised against Nephite cities. There is evidence of forts as early as the Preclassic period (500 B.C.–A.D. 250).

Scripture: Nephi begins his description of the Gentiles’ relationship to the Atoning Messiah with his own people. Given his personal relationship with the Messiah, he must have struggled to understand how his people could ever lose touch with that relationship. Yet they would. His pain over his people’s destruction must have compelled him to ask why such a tragic loss would be allowed and if there would be no lasting good from his efforts to teach his people.

Imagine Nephi, a prophet, creating a society for his people based on his sure knowledge of his Messiah. He shapes his people into a community of believers. Along with teaching them the skills of surviving in a new land, he teaches them to partake of a more spiritual food. Yet with all of his knowledge and all of his efforts (2 Ne. 25:23), his burden as a prophet is that his people’s unrighteousness will destroy them.

This section of Nephi’s prophecy explains the answer he received to his anguished question. He sees his people’s future travails in the light of the record he is writing. The message that will be preserved will play a powerful role in giving the Gentiles knowledge of their Atoning Messiah and their relationship to him.

Therefore, as Nephi recounts the Gentiles’ future redemption, he begins with his own people, contrasting their previous righteousness and tremendous gifts of knowledge with their future destruction. Nephi’s point is that, while the people may be destroyed, the message of the prayers, writings, and times of righteousness will survive.

Narrative: In the first version of this prophecy, this gathering of the Gentiles against Nephi’s seed is recounted in 1 Nephi 13:14–15.

Second Witness: Analytical & Contextual Commentary on the Book of Mormon, Vol. 2