Isaiah 29:21

A friend recently said she needs a “new approach” to studying the Book of Mormon. I’m not sure what her old approach was, bible book of mormonbut I assume from her insightful gospel doctrine comments that it had something to do with topics, lots of cross-referencing and plenty of electronic note taking. It is an admirable approach and, in my opinion, a huge step forward from reading straight through for story line–or not reading at all. I studied like that for years until I got distracted by “disjunctions,” the word I use to describe things that that do not make initial-reading, surface-level sense to me (i.e., when the angel in Nephi’s vision does not seem to respond directly to Nephi’s questions; Moroni 6:1; the antecedent of the word “priesthood” in Moses 6:7; the jump from Mosiah 3:15 to the next verse; or Antionah’s series of questions in Alma 12; etc.).

I am still very fond of disjunctions, but lately I have enjoyed another methodology. At the risk of being laughed at by the much more erudite scriptorians who write and read this blog, I offer a simple and straightforward study technique: words. Even a single word.

Some of you can no doubt enlighten me about the historical issues and problems created when comparing the 1800s American English words Joseph Smith used in translating the Book of Mormon with the various versions of the Bible, which were translated from other ancient languages. However, I believe I will remain a fan of close reading; spending a full BYU semester studying King Lear, Act I, Scene i with Arthur Henry King convinced me that words matter; sometimes Dr. King would only get through a line per hour discussing the meanings and depths of single words. I think words and phrasings can create, alter, slant, and highlight meaning. And that was “just” Shakespeare; scripture is the word of God.

Last time I began reading 1 Nephi 1, I did not make it through verse 1:1 before being slapped in the face with Nephi telling me he was “highly favored of the Lord.” Of course, I stopped. Who would not want to be favored of the Lord? Highly favored sounds even better. Though I had never fixated on it before, the phrase, “highly favored” derailed me from my story reading, and, frankly, I have not yet made it back to finish 1 Ne 1:1, much less 1:2.

It turns out that very few people are “highly favored”; studying who and why and how has made me think twice about adopting that goal, myself. Though I am still pondering possible synonyms, “highly favored” is used only 8 times in scripture–one time in the New Testament (Mary) and seven times in Book of Mormon (1 Nephi 1:1; Mosiah 1:13; Alma 9:20; Alma 13:23; Alma 27:30; Alma 48:20; Ether 1:34). Good stuff.

That development pushed me to study plain old “favored” and plain old “plain,” a completely not-plain word that I could talk about for at least thirty minutes, even though I am not close to finishing up my study of it. In the last few years, I have stumbled onto studying “establish,” “power,” “authority,” “write/writing,” “turn,” and “Mary” (used only twice in the Book of Mormon by proper name), just to mention a few.

I tend to get distracted with new words before I fully finish my study of the old ones, but the goal is to

  • note patterns, repetitions and oppositions;
  • pay attention to who uses the word, when, why and how (which has pushed me toward an intriguing study in Book of Mormon intertextuality);
  • identify other words used consistently with or around my word (hint: look for “angels” around “highly favored” references);
  • consider synonyms that ought to be factored into my word study, especially if the word shows up in the New or Old Testament; and
  • ponder why that little unit of language matters and what it all has to do with me.

So, yes, much to the dismay of my family members who get to hear ad nauseum about whatever small smash-up of letters is my current obsession, I really have spent the better part of the last few years focused on a few words. I figure I can always revert back to studying “disjunctions,” topics, or stories, but I do not think I will run out of words to study any time soon. (And hopefully that doesn’t make me an “offender for a word.”)

16 comments for “Isaiah 29:21

  1. I’m glad that this from of scripture study has proven fruitful for you and given you insights.

    I have to say, however, that I am generally not a fan of this method, as it assumes two things which I find troubling:

    1) First, that there is a sort of “secret meaning” behind certain words and phrases that can only be deduced through careful study.

    2) Second, that similar words/phrases used hundreds or thousands of years apart, in different original languages, and translated by different translators, necessarily refer to the same thing.

    I think both of these assumptions are false, and sometimes dangerous. Take the example you give, of being “highly favored.” It becomes easy to think that this phrase refers to some “secret status” among God’s super-duper elect, something we should strive for. When we read that both Nephi and Mary are referred to as “highly favored,” we may begin ask: “Why was the same phrase used twice? What does it mean?

    That answer is: probably nothing. Or rather, no more than the words mean. They were both favored — more than average — of the Lord. God loved them due to who they were, their righteousness, etc. Why does it need to mean more than that?

    Now a few final thoughts on this:

    – While I don’t think these “secret meanings” exist, I do think that we can learn a lot from this type of word-study when we realize these meanings we are finding were not necessarily intended, but can still lead us to true principles that help us.

    – In some specific cases, these similar phrases do mean something. If the same phrase is being employed multiple times by the same author (and sometimes, but less compellingly, by the same translator), there may indeed be a connection. For example if the Lord purposefully uses a NT or OT phrase in the D&C, that tells us to look for commonalities; or when the Alma uses the same phrase in several speeches, etc.

    But it does worry me a little when we engage in this mystical word-search, this numerology of words, and assume that the same word/phrase used in varying spots must have hidden meaning.

  2. Yes–I figured someone would call me out on that. I write and I do not weigh and measure each word to make sure it connects with other things I (or others) have written, though I do try to choose words with care. And I certainly hope no one else is weighing my words with undue regard for secret meaning. On the other hand, as you mention, sometimes repetitive words DO mean something–not necessarily “secret” things, but basic and simple things we missed or did not understand when we read in haste.

    I will have to look up “numerology” to be precisely sure what you are referring to, but counting for me has more to do with intertextuality study–if only 2 people use a particular phrasing, it seems more likely that one is quoting the other (the “Mary” example). For example, I have enjoyed discovering how Alma 2 was fond of citing scripture, as well as how fond Mormon is of Alma.

  3. By “numerology of words,” I simply meant the idea that there is a secret meaning that can be discerned by intense parsing. Numerology generally refers to the belief that specific numbers mean specific things (beyond the obvious representation of a number). Perhaps it was an inelegant metaphor.

  4. I do want to emphasize one thing I mentioned briefly in my first comment, which is that I think this type of study can be fruitful, as long as we recognize that what we are finding are unintended but potentially valuable insights. The Spirit works in many ways, often teaching us through words and phrases that weren’t meant by the author that way, but the Spirit uses them as a catalyst to teach something we need to hear.

    Here is a perfect example: In Isaiah 9, we read the phrase: “For all this his anger is not turned away, but his hand is stretched out still.” This phrase refers to God’s anger, as in, “In spite of all the destruction I just described, God’s anger is not finished, and He will continue to punish you.” If one closely reads the text, it becomes obvious that this is its meaning. It’s kind of a scary phrase, to be honest.

    But many LDS (and other Christian) readers take this verse to refer to God’s love, thinking that it refers to His unconditional and unshakable love for us. The fact is, this is an incorrect reading of the phrase that nonetheless teaches a true principle. And it is certainly possible to read this and think, “God’s love is just as constant as that.” The Spirit can use this phrase to teach us about God’s love.

    I think this is great, as long as we don’t start thinking that that’s what it is actually saying, from a primary-meaning standpoint.

  5. I think it can be useful to do this kind of study, provided we are aware of the caveats and dangers IsaacH spells out. Too often we import technical or quasi-technical meanings into places where none is intended. But really, I’d be thrilled to see this become a serious problem, as it is a problem of serious scripture study (as opposed to casual read-5-minutes-before-bed “study”)

  6. Thanks, Ben. I’ll read the easy one first.

    And IsaacH, I think that’s a fascinating insight into Isaiah 9. I read John Gee’s blog about that verse awhile ago, but I didn’t make the further connection that people assume a truth from their incorrect reading. BTW, aren’t there other “hands outstretched” verses and imagery that DO teach about God’s love? (Can’t think of one off the top of my head, but I’ll look). I am especially fond of images and phrases that mean their opposite, such as “cleave.”

  7. God Bless you!

    May I offer a few more to consider?


    The list goes on and on…

  8. I’m a big fan of contextual reading. And for the Book of Mormon, since I don’t have ancient studies chops (and the issues of transmission and translation), I tend to contextualize it with the early restoration. How were passages read and viewed in the 1830s and 40s?

  9. Nice words. I was hoping people would suggest more words, especially potential synonyms for favored. Blessed looks promising. Thanks.

    I have power and authority, but not priesthood, wrath or anger. Certainly commandments and blessed/blessing could keep me busy for years. Literally.

  10. I’m reading a book on Second Isaiah’s use of scripture called “Remember the Former Things”. One of the interesting things that comes up is that the re-use of rare words can suggest deep connections between texts. I like this because it avoids the “secret meaning” stuff warned about above while pushing us to consider what a text might have originally meant and what it means in the hands of the current prophet.

  11. Never forget, though, that when you read scripture, you are reading translation. Just because highly favored are the words chosen to stand in for an idea expressed within another language, doesn’t mean they are the only words that could’ve been used, or even the best. Never get to hung up on words. Don’t read too much into words. It can’t be done effectively unless you are reading the original text in its original language. This, of course, isn’t even possible with the Book of Mormon.

  12. I was taught to read Scripture in light of two different streams…law…and gospel.

    The law (anything that we should, ought, or must be doing) is there to expose our sinful hearts.

    The gospel is there to forgive us…and give us life anew…in Christ Jesus.

  13. This will perhaps sound snarky, but I’m actually sincere: thank you for your cautions and concern for my scripture-reading soul. I agree word-studiers should:

    –search for synonyms as a critical aspect of studying in this manner
    –proceed with caution and not “over-read” from single words
    –keep it all in context (I try for at least 1-2 chapters both sides of studied word to understand what is going on)
    –acknowledge the limits of this type of research (translation, not broad-based, etc)
    –rely on the Spirit

    With cautions in mind, hopefully you will consider the merits of close reading–that type of reading in which you actually pay attention to the words on the page and what they say, not what we imagine they say. Here are a couple recent examples off the top of my head (I’ll start looking for more):

    Elder Bednar’s insight into 2 Nephi 33:1. “Please notice how the power of the Spirit carries the message *unto* but not necessarily *into* the heart.”

    Or Elder Dallin H. Oaks explaining that in the sacrament, “we do not witness that we take upon us the name of Jesus Christ. [Rather], we witness that we are *willing* to do so. (See D&C 20:77.)

  14. I think the Book of Mormon translation itself (not to mention the other modern scriptures) was inspired–with intentional linguistic connections to KJV phrases, so we will make connections in our understandings, even across time periods and cultures.

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