Monday, September 17, 2012

Beautiful Mountains and Messengers

My friend Allen Hansen has a post on his blog Calba Savua's Orchard entitled "Jewish Interpretations of Isaiah 52, Pt. 1," in which he draws on the work of the late rabbi and scholar Joshua Trachtenberg. To briefly review, Trachtenberg analyzes both the revelatory nature of dreams and scripture in Jewish traditions. Explaining that "dreams played a greater role in shaping ideas and actions and careers than it is easy for us today to believe," Trachtenberg notes that events both favorable and unfavorable following dreams were interpreted as consequences of the dreams themselves.[1] Precautions were taken to prevent evil dreams, including prayers with "a specific request to 'save us from evil dreams'" and/or biblical verses.[2] "Once the dream has been experienced, however," writes Trachtenberg, "other means must be adopted to forestall its consequences."[3] One way to counteract the ominous dream was to "recite, immediately upon waking, a Biblical verse suggested by the dream, which contains a promise of good."[4] Allen draws attention to the instructions of the Babylonian Talmud, t. Berachot 56b:

One who dreams of a mountain should arise and recite, "How beautiful upon the mountains are the feet of the messenger of good tidings (Is. 52:7)," before he is overtaken by another verse, "For the mountains will I take up a weeping and wailing (Jer. 9:9)."

This approach to scripture is another example of the ancient context in which Nephi operated when he wrote,

And I did read many things unto them which were written in the books of Moses; but that I might more fully persuade them to believe in the Lord their Redeemer I did read unto them that which was written by the prophet Isaiah; for I did liken all scriptures unto us, that it might be for our profit and learning. (1 Nephi 19:23)

In his brilliant commentary on the Book of Mormon, Brant Gardner reminds readers that Nephi's Isaiah quotations "are not random inclusions of Nephi's favorite scriptures; they are calculated inclusions of texts that have current impact on Nephi's situation and on the future of his people." Even though "we may also liken scriptures unto us, we must understand that Nephi likened them to his own people and his own time."[5] The biblical authors would make "radical revisions to the texts and traditions they had inherited. In classical Judaism, revelation would never be something that had happened once and for all time, but an ongoing process that could never end, because there was always something fresh to be discovered...And in any reading of the Torah, the commentary was as important as the text itself."[6] Abinadi also employs Isaiah 52 when testifying against Noah's priests. His use of "Isaiah's trilogy of publishing peace, good tidings, and salvation," which "are all terms for the same thing," denotes "that this peace/good tidings/salvation is the atonement through the Messiah who is to come."[7] The quotation of "Thy God reigneth" is particularly important since "Abinadi's point has been that God himself should come down to atone" and thus "interprets Isaiah's declaration as directly referring to the Messiah."[8] Allen referenced an older post of mine that drew attention to the similarities between Abinadi's usage of Isaiah and that of the Qumran community:

This is the day of [peace about which God] spoke [of old through the words of Isa]iah the prophet, who said: Isa 52:7 "How beautiful upon the mountains are the feet of the messenger who announces peace, of the mess[enger of good who announces salvation], saying to Zion: 'your God [reigns']." Its interpetation: The mountains are the pro[phets ...] And the messenger is [the ano]inted of the spirit [mashiach haruach] about whom Dan[iel] spoke ["...until the time of (the/an) Anointed Prince [mashiach nagid] there will be seven weeks . . . after sixty-two weeks, (the/an) Anointed shall be cut off" Dan 9:25, 26 ]. [... and the messenger of] good who announces salv[ation] is the one about whom it is written that [he will send him Isa 61:2-3 "to comfo[rt the afflicted, to watch over the afflicted ones of Zion"]. "To comfo[rt the afflicted," its interpretation:] to instruct them in all the ages of the worl[d...] in truth. [...][...] it has been turned away from Belial and it [...] [...] in the judgments of God, as is written about him: Isa 52:7 "Saying to Zion: 'your God rules'." ["Zi]on" is [the congregation of all the sons of justice, those] who establish the covenant, those who avoid walking [on the pa]th of the people. "Your God" is [Melchizedek, who will fr]ee [them] from the hand of Belial. And as for what he said: Lev 25:9 "You shall blow the hor[n in every] land." (11QMelchizedek)

The Qumran authors identify the messenger as the Anointed One or Messiah, the mountains as the prophets, and Zion as the "sons of justice" i.e. those "who establish the covenant."[9] Abinadi follows a similar pattern:

Behold I say unto you, that whosoever has heard the words of the prophets, yea, all the holy prophets who have prophesied concerning the coming of the Lord—I say unto you, that all those who have hearkened unto their words, and believed that the Lord would redeem his people, and have looked forward to that day for a remission of their sins...Yea, and are not the prophets, every one that has opened his mouth to prophesy, that has not fallen into transgression, I mean all the holy prophets ever since the world began? I say unto you that they are his seed. And these are they who have published peace, who have brought good tidings of good, who have published salvation; and said unto Zion: Thy God reigneth! And O how beautiful upon the mountains were their feet! And again, how beautiful upon the mountains are the feet of those that are still publishing peace! And again, how beautiful upon the mountains are the feet of those who shall hereafter publish peace, yea, from this time henceforth and forever! And behold, I say unto you, this is not all. For O how beautiful upon the mountains are the feet of him that bringeth good tidings, that is the founder of peace, yea, even the Lord, who has redeemed his people; yea, him who has granted salvation unto his people; For were it not for the redemption which he hath made for his people, which was prepared from the foundation of the world, I say unto you, were it not for this, all mankind must have perished. (Mosiah 15:11-19)

Abinadi explains that the messengers "upon the mountains" are those who have "hearkened unto [the prophets'] words, and believed that the Lord would redeem his people." These are believers i.e. covenant people. These messengers are also identified as the holy prophets. Finally, the ultimate messenger is the Lord Himself; the very Messiah of whom Abinadi is testifying. 

In both interpretations, the pattern of Messiah/prophets/covenant people emerges from Isaiah's words. While perhaps not the exact meaning of the original, the parallels are worth noting.[10]

1. Joshua Trachtenberg, Jewish Magic and Superstition: A Study in Folk Religion (Forgotten Books e-book, 2008 [1939]), 230. The relevance of this older work of scholarship is still defended today. For some recent thoughts on dreams within Mormonism, see Dave Banack's Times & Seasons article "Troubling Dreams."

2. Ibid, 244. Biblical passages included Cant. 3:7-8, Nu. 6:24-26, and Ps. 128. "The first because it speaks of "threescore mighty men" gathered about a bed, the second because it contains sixty letters—and a dream is "one sixtieth part of prophecy."" The third because it "contains references to vines and olives, which, according to the Talmud, are favorable dream symbols." (Ibid.)

3. Ibid.

4. Ibid, 245.

5. Brant A. Gardner, Second Witness: Analytical and Contextual Commentary on the Book of Mormon, Volume 1b - First Nephi 12-22 (Draper, UT: Greg Kofford Books, 2007). Kindle Edition. Comments on 1 Ne. 19:23. Gardner opens his six-volume commentary with the following: "We tend to read the Bible and the Book of Mormon as though people just like us wrote them. We assume that their concerns were our concerns and that the things that we care about most were precisely the things that they also cared about most. This reading backward of our world into theirs does not diminish our ability to discern spiritual value in the Bible or the Book of Mormon...Lacking context does not mean that we cannot derive value from the text; rather, we gain more when we understand the text in the context in which it was created." (Gardner, Second Witness: Analytical and Contextual Commentary on the Book of Mormon, Volume 1a - First Nephi 1-11. Draper, UT: Greg Kofford Books, 2007. Kindle Edition. "Behind the Text - 1. Text and Context.")

6. Karen Armstrong, The Case for God (New York: Alfred Knopf, 2009). Kindle Edition. Ch. 2: "God." "Jewish exegesis would be called midrash, which derives from the verb darash, "to search," "investigate," "to go in pursuit of something" as yet undiscovered. Midrash would become a new ritual evoking the divine and would always retain connotations of dedication, emotional involvement, and expectant inquiry." (Ibid.)

7. Brant A. Gardner, Second Witness: Analytical and Contextual Commentary on the Book of Mormon, Volume 3b - Mosiah 11 - 29 (Draper, UT: Greg Kofford Books, 2007). Kindle Edition. Comments on Mosiah 15:14-17.

8. Ibid.

9. As for Melchizedek's identification as a god in the Qumran texts (which is outside the scope of this post), see Margaret Barker's Temple Studies Symposia paper "Who Was Melchizedek and Who Was His God?" as well as James R. Davila, "Melchizedek: King, Priest, and God," The Seductiveness of Jewish Myth: Challenge or Response?, ed. S. Daniel Breslauer (Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 1997).

10. For more detail on the original context of Isaiah 52, see John H. Eaton, Festal Drama in Deutero-Isaiah (London: SPCK, 1979). David Larsen has an excellent write-up on the subject at his blog Heavenly Ascents.