“A Dream of a Night Vision”

Brant Gardner

Reference: Nephi is reworking Isaiah 29:7–8:

And the multitude of all the nations that fight against Ariel, even all that fight against her and her munitions, and that distress her, shall be as a dream of a night vision.
It shall even be as when an hungry man dreameth, and, behold, he eateth; but he awaketh, and his soul is empty: or as when a thirsty man dreameth, and, behold, he drinketh; but he awaketh, and, behold, he is faint, and his soul hath appetite: so shall the multitude of all the nations be, that fight against mount Zion.

Nephi restructures the introduction to apply specifically to Zion rather than to Ariel (another name for Jerusalem). He leaves the “dream of a night vision” because it fits his restructuring of the “voice from the dust” into a message from those who “slumber” in death. This passage is not simply altering, adding, or omitting a few words as has been the case up to this point. Rather it is a complex thematic reworking of Isaiah’s original. Such a reworking cannot be explained as a difference in translation. It is well crafted, however, taking literary themes and weaving them together into a new fabric.

What Nephi is doing corresponds to the later practice called pesher. Robert Wiseman, professor of Middle East religions and archaeology at California State University, Long Beach, and coauthor of The Facsimile Edition of the Dead Sea Scrolls, explains how pesher functioned in the Dead Sea Scrolls:

A pesher is a commentary—at Qumran, a commentary on a well-known biblical passage, usually from the Prophets, but also from Psalms and sometimes even other biblical books like Genesis, Leviticus, or Deuteronomy. The important thing is that the underlying biblical passage being interpreted should be seen as fraught with significance in relation to the ideology or history of the Scroll Community. Often this takes the form of citing a biblical passage or quotation out of context or even sometimes slightly altered, followed by the words, “pesher” or “pesher ha-diver,” meaning “its interpretation” or “the interpretation of the passage is.” The text then proceeds to give an idiosyncratic interpretation having to do with the history or ideology of the group, with particular reference to contemporary events.

This description matches closely what Nephi is doing with Isaiah. Unlike the sections where Nephi is quoting Isaiah, he is here uses Isaiah as a springboard to his own vision for the future, shifting contexts, and reworking meanings so that Isaiah’s prophecy matches Nephi’s prophetic dream of the coming forth of the Book of Mormon.

Scripture: Nephi describes the spiritual state of this world in apostasy. His metaphor is the “dream of a night vision.” Nephi is using the familiar concept of the seemingly real dream. The apostate world will be enmeshed in such a dream, taking action against Israel based on this false reality. To what does Nephi refer?

The apostate world that will receive the Book of Mormon is not one that considers itself apostate. Instead, it considers itself faithful and religious. In that mistaken religious fervor, it fights against Zion. Its view of the world (including its attack on Zion) seems to reflect real conditions, yet this view of things is absolutely false. The religion which the Gentiles so passionately believe in cannot nourish them, any more than food in a dream will satisfy hunger. The world dreams that it has the true gospel but will find that its beliefs lack substance. This world needs to awaken so that it can be fed with truth. It needs the words that Nephi and his descendants will write.

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