Select Page

Interpreting Interpreter
Echoes of Joseph in 1 Nephi 22

This post is a summary of the article “‘The Lord God Will Proceed’: Nephi’s Wordplay in 1 Nephi 22:8–12 and the Abrahamic Covenant” by Matthew L. Bowen in Volume 50 of Interpreter: A Journal of Latter-day Saint Faith and Scholarship.

An introduction to the “Interpreting Interpreter” series can be found here.


[Author’s Note: I highly recommend having 1 Nephi 22:8-12 in front of you when reading the full article. It’ll help you keep track of Bowen’s twists and turns as he wends his way in and out of 1 Nephi, Isaiah, and Genesis.]


The Takeaway

In 1 Nephi 22:8-12, the concepts of proceeding (yôsīp) and gathering (yēʾāsēp) form possible wordplays with the name Joseph (yôsēp). The passage’s nuanced quotations of and allusions to Genesis and Isaiah provide insight into Nephi’s prophetic view of the Lord’s and Joseph’s respective roles in fulfilling the Abrahamic covenant.


The Summary

Although both critics and faithful scholars generally focus on direct biblical quotations within the Book of Mormon, Bowen has formed a habit of calling our attention to the more subtle biblical allusions contained in the text, as well as the wordplays those allusions form. In this article, Matthew Bowen focuses on allusions and quotations within 1 Nephi 22:8-12 to several passages in Isaiah (11:11; 29:14; 49:22-23; 52:10) as well as Genesis 22:18, detailing a specific wordplay those passages may contain. That wordplay involves the Hebrew terms “yôsīp” (meaning “proceed”, “continue to do”, or “do again”), and “yēʾāsēp” (meaning “gathered”), as calling to mind the name “Joseph” (yôsēp, “may he [God] add”). As these allusions tie into language within Genesis regarding the Abrahamic covenant, 1 Nephi 22:8-12 helps to frame the prophesied Joseph as “a ‘gathering’ prophet”, who would play a pivotal role in fulfilling the promises of the Abrahamic covenant.

Matthew Bowen suggests that these wordplays are more than incidental, but may have shaped Nephi’s selection and interpretation of key Isaiah passages. This practice would represent a Gezera Shawa-style allusion, a term which means “equal category” and a teaching method common to Jewish rabbis wherein a difficult passage is explained by referring to a different passage containing the same term. Bowen provides Nephi’s quotation of Genesis 22:18 as an important example, with Nephi’s quotation being based in the term “gôyim”, meaning “kindreds”, “Gentiles” or “nations”. These nations, which Genesis had earlier framed as inhabiting the “isles of the Gentiles” (Genesis 10:5) appear to be a focus of the gathering of Israel for Isaiah (e.g., Isaiah 11:11-12).

Bowen explains that the term “gôyim” is referenced in a variety of places in the covenantal language of Genesis, including Genesis 17, where Abraham is named as a “father of many nations”, and notes an apparent parallel between the reference to “kings” in Isaiah 49 (i.e., “And kings shall be thy nursing fathers”; Isaiah 49:22-23) and a similar reference in covenantal sections of Genesis, which also involves the term “nations” (i.e., “I will make nations [gôyim] of thee, and kings shall come out of thee). Bowen finds this interesting in the context of Abraham’s name change (i.e., from Abram to Abraham) as a common ancient rite associated with assuming a royal throne. With this change Abraham’s name was enlarged by the extra syllable, his name being quite literally made great, in reference to Genesis 12:2. Nephi may be alluding to Abraham’s name, which means “exalted father”, while referencing “the covenants of the Father of heaven” in 1 Nephi 22:9.

Bowen sees the name Joseph as an extension of Abrahamic covenantal promises, based on a chiasm in Genesis 30:23-24 that links the name Joseph as an alliteration to the concepts of both adding to (i.e., “The Lord shall add”; “yōsēp”), and gathering (i.e., “God hath taken away”; “ʾāsap”, which can also be translated “God hath gathered up”). Though the two concepts can be seen as antonyms (i.e., adding vs. taking away), rendering the term “ʾāsap” as “gathering” can make them complementary. Isaiah himself uses “ʾāsap” to denote this gathering aspect in Isaiah 11:11-12, where he says “And he shall set up an ensign for the nations, and shall assemble (āsap, which can be translated as “and shall gather in”) the outcasts of Israel.” Nephi may be using the concepts of adding and gathering in a similar complementary way in 1 Nephi 22:12, referencing God bringing Israel “again out [yôsîp] of captivity” so that “they shall be gathered together”. Bowen also notes that Nephi’s repetition of the similar phrases “to bring them out” and “they shall be brought out” may represent a polyptoton, or a wordplay involving the repetition of words derived from the same root, as the phrases represent active and passive forms of the verb “yāṣāʾ”.

Bowen concludes his analysis by noting that 1 Nephi 22:12 quotes from Isaiah 49:26, which has the context of Israel being delivered from the “Divine Warrior”, the mighty One of Jacob. Bowen earlier establishes the Divine Warrior motif as a description of the Lord’s role in gathering Israel. In connection with Nephi’s early use of Isaiah’s phrasing “to do a marvelous work”, Nephi may be implying that the marvelous work would be a written record, which Bowen sees as being suggested by the phrase “making known of…covenants” (1 Nephi 22:9), implying that the prophesied book (i.e., The Book of Mormon itself) is an instrument of the Lord’s gathering efforts. This suggestion, alongside the wordplays, quotations, and allusions within 1 Nephi 22:8-12, appear to reinforce the prophet Joseph and the book he helped bring forth as important pillars in the fulfillment of the Abrahamic covenant.


The Reflection

I’ve sometimes viewed Bowen’s wordplay-related proposals with a certain degree of skepticism, as I did in my Estimating the Evidence essay on the subject. But, having waded through this article in-depth, I can see Bowen’s case both for the plausibility of the wordplay and for Nephi’s deft touch in handling and adapting his sources in Isaiah and Genesis. I can imagine what it would’ve been like to have heard 1 Nephi 22 read aloud in Hebrew, with words only shades away from the word “Joseph” ringing in my ears with considerable frequency as Nephi describes the promises of the Abrahamic covenant. The reverence that Nephi must’ve held for the name Joseph must’ve been considerable–to Nephi, Joseph would’ve been an iconic historical figure, an honored ancestor, a predicted prophet, and a little brother rolled into one. For him to have latched onto and featured words connected to that name strikes me as both natural and fitting. As hard as it is now to hear and recognize those connections in English or other languages, I’m grateful for people like Bowen who can bring those ancient words back to our ears, even if it’s only on paper.

As will generally be the case with these summaries, I’ll urge you to read Bowen’s complete article to get a full appreciation for what he’s put together.

Pin It on Pinterest

Share This