“They Shall Have Been Brought Down Low in the Dust”

Brant Gardner

Nephi supports his assertion that his people will be intimately involved with bringing the gospel to the Gentiles by again paraphrasing Isaiah: “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” (Isa. 29:4).

Isaiah’s context, however, is very different from how Nephi is using it. Victor Ludlow explains:

Verses 3 and 4 further describe how the Lord will come against Zion until the Israelites are brought low in humility, so that their fallen nation speaks “out of the ground” and “out of the dust.” Israel speaking to the world from “low out of the dust” can be understood figuratively to mean that she will deliver her message from the depths of her humiliation. The remnants of Israel in their scattered condition have often been taught by the Lord how disobedience to divine law brings punishments, while obedience brings blessings. Because of this, the sad experiences of the Jews and the Lamanites serve as a witness to the world of what will happen to everyone who turns away from God.

Ludlow then explains the connection to the Book of Mormon:

Israel’s words speaking “out of the ground” can also be interpreted more literally to mean that her written prophetic records would be preserved in the earth for a time before coming forth as a witness to the world. Of course, the Book of Mormon fulfills such a role. (See 2 Nephi 26:15–17; compare LeGrand Richards, [Conference Report], April 1963, 18.) Also, the Dead Sea Scrolls provide an ancient record of the importance given to Old Testament texts; they reveal a Jewish religious community that maintained many teachings, ordinances, and practices that were not followed by orthodox Jews and Catholics. Yet other records that are now hidden in the earth will undoubtedly come forth from Israel to bear witness of the Lord’s gospel (see 2 Ne. 29:7–14). They also will be speaking forth “out of the dust.”

Ludlow does not acknowledge that this particular interpretation depends on Nephi’s specific recasting of Isaiah. In Isaiah, a defeated nation is speaking humbly. The Nephites might fit that category, but for Nephi, the context is their annihilation:

After my seed and the seed of my brethren shall have dwindled in unbelief, and shall have been smitten by the Gentiles; yea, after the Lord God shall have camped against them round about, and shall have laid siege against them with a mount, and raised forts against them; and after they shall have been brought down low in the dust, even that they are not, yet the words of the righteous shall be written, and the prayers of the faithful shall be heard, and all those who have dwindled in unbelief shall not be forgotten (2 Ne. 26:15; emphasis mine).

Nephi is describing “dust” as death, not just humiliation. Nephi is not quoting Isaiah but alluding to his passage. Nephi is “reusing” Isaiah in an intentionally different, but conceptually related, context. That context is Nephi’s vision of the coming forth of the record that he noted in 1 Nephi 13:34–36. Therefore, immediately after defining “dust” as his people’s annihilation, Nephi mentions the records.

At the beginning of verse 16, the important phrase is “for those who shall be destroyed.” Nephi associates the Isaiah reference with those who “shall be destroyed” to mean his people’s destruction. This alteration of Isaiah’s text is not intended to “restore” or “retranslate” Isaiah, but rather to recontextualize Isaiah’s words so that they fit Nephi’s vision of the future. Grant Hardy, chair of the History Department at the University of North Carolina at Asheville, describes his understanding of what Nephi is doing:

Nephi’s technique of prophecy through quotation is a striking feature of his writing, yet there are two chapters where his usage of earlier scripture is even more precisely organized. Rather than simply working Isaiah’s words and phrases into his own discourse (impressive as that may be), in 2 Nephi 26 and 27 he quotes nearly all of Isaiah 29, a phrase here and a phrase there, but in order, as he provides a new framework that particularizes that earlier prophecy and explains how it was to be fulfilled in latter days when Martin Harris took the page of reformed Egyptian to Charles Anthon in 1828. We sometimes speak of “reading between the lines,” but here Nephi is “writing between the lines.”

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