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MormanityDusting Off a Theme from that Voice from the Dust, the Book of Mormon
by Jeff Lindsay
Last week I presented a possible discovery of a Hebraic wordplay between "dust" ('aphar in Hebrew) and "obscurity" (possibly ʼôphel, related to ʼâphêl in Hebrew) in 2 Nephi 1:23, where Lehi, about to return to the dust himself, makes his final speech to his children and urges them to shake off the chains that bind them and instead to put on garments of righteousness and "arise from the dust."
This verse caught my eye because of its link between "chains" and "obscurity" (a word that can refer to darkness) as I explored some of the connections between the Book of Moses and the brass plates, following a hypothesis from Noel Reynolds.
Thanks to David Bokovoy, I learned that this speech from Lehi plays a much more important role in the Book of Mormon than I had previously realized, and in further exploring this, I'd like to share some additional observations.
First, let me share a passage from David Bokovoy, "Deutero-Isaiah in the Book of Mormon: A Literary Analysis (pt. 1)," When Gods Were Men, Patheos.com, April 29, 2014.
At the end of his life, the Book of Mormon prophet Lehi called his children together and delivered a series of final sermons. Facing the prospect of his own mortality, Lehi encouraged his sons to wake up and avoid spiritual death. While facing physical death, Lehi used resurrection imagery in his final effort to inspire his sons:
O that ye would awake;
awake from a deep sleep,
yea, even from the sleep of hell,
and shake off the awful chains by which ye are bound,
which are the chains which bind the children of men,
that they are carried away captive down to the eternal gulf of misery
Awake! and arise from the dust,
and hear the words of a trembling parent,
whose limbs ye must soon lay down in the cold and silent grave,
from whence no traveler can return;
a few more days and I go the way of all the earth…
Awake, my sons; put on the armor of righteousness.
Shake off the chains with which ye are bound,
and come forth out of obscurity,
and arise from the dust (2 Nephi 1:13-14, 23).
Lehi’s poem clearly draws its inspiration from Isaiah 52, a poetic text that seeks to reverse the sufferings experienced by the exilic community through a promise of royal restoration:
put on thy strength, O Zion;
Put on thy beautiful garments,
O Jerusalem, the holy city:
there shall no more come into thee
the uncircumcised and the unclean.
Shake thyself from the dust; arise, and sit down,
loose thyself from the bands of thy neck,
O captive daughter of Zion (Isaiah 52:1-2)
Lehi’s sermon features the dual imperative “awake, awake,” the image of being loosed from bands, arising from the dust, and putting on armor of righteousness/beautiful garments. The Book of Mormon sermon, therefore, clearly echoes this poetic refrain from Isaiah 52.
Many people are puzzled by a phrase in Isaiah 52:2: "Shake thyself from the dust; arise, and sit down." If you are shaking yourself from the dust, why would you sit down in it after rising? But the meaning is not to sit back down in the dust, but to arise and sit on the throne that God has prepared. This will become clearer below.
Bokovoy also observed that Nephi shows that he accepts Lehi's charge to "awake" shortly after recording Lehi's speech when he writes his Psalm: "Awake, my soul! No longer droop in sin. Rejoice, O my heart, and give place no more for the enemy of my soul (2 Nephi 4:28).
This strengthens the case for Nephi as Lehi's successor and the legitimate king over the Nephite people.
Two chapters later, Jacob explains that he is about to read words from Isaiah that Nephi asked him to discuss (2 Nephi 6:4). He then begins reciting and quoting Isaiah, starting with Isaiah 49:22 and then Isaiah 50, 51, and finally concludes with the passage that Lehi drew upon, Isaiah 52:1-2 ("Awake, awake, … shake thyself from the dust….")
Bokovoy sees Jacob's use of this passage, following Nephi's assignment to him, as further cementing the legitimacy of Nephi's reign and establishing the authority of Nephi and Jacob.
Bokovoy sees the issue of Nephite leadership and authority and the use of Isaiah 52:1-2 as especially meaningful in light of a scholarly work that establishes a connection between "rising from the dust" and kingship, enthronement, and authority.
The source is Walter Brueggemann, "From Dust to Kingship" Zeitschrift für die alttestamentliche Wissenschaft, vol. 84, no. 1, 1972. You can see the first page and the abstract online.
With the help of a son at BYU, I was able to track down this article, and found it to offer some gems of insight for the Book of Mormon, the record we often call "a voice from the dust."
Brueggemann’s study of this topic began with investigation of 1 Kings 16:2, where the Lord tells Baasha that, “I exalted you out of the dust and made you leader over my people Israel.” But then the antithesis is given: “Behold I will utterly sweep away Baasha and his house,” referring to Baasha losing his status as a ruler and becoming dust again.
This is tied to the Creation story, where we read that God formed man out of the dust of the ground (Gen. 2:7), and that we are dust, and will return to dust (Gen. 3:19).
I should add that in light of modern science, we can say that we are not only formed from the dust of the earth, but from the dust of the stars and the cosmos, and that the whole earth has been formed from the dust of space. Dust is such a fitting word to describe the origins of our physical bodies and even the world around us. The Creative work of God in bringing about His ultimate goals begins with forming us from the dust.
Bruggeman builds on the earlier work of J. Wijngaards, who observed that “dying and rising” describe the voiding and renewing of covenant relationships, and that calls to “turn” or “repent” involve changing loyalties or entering into a new covenant.
He also cites other scholars who found that New Testament themes of resurrection are built on Israel’s ancient enthronement rituals, and that when Christ was “raised up” from the dead, the concept was dependent upon a variety of related Old Testament passages.
“The important gain of these studies is the recognition that the motifs of covenant-renewal, enthronement, and resurrection cannot be kept in isolation from each other but they run together and serve to illuminate each other” (p. 1).
Bruggeman's exploration of the dust theme in the scriptures led him to conclude that rising from the dust is tied to divine covenants. To keep them is to rise from the dust, but not only to rise, but to be endowed (my word) with power and authority. Rising from the dust is a symbol of enthronement.
To break covenants is to return to the dust and to lose one's position of authority. Dust is used to describe the status of the covenant maker (pp. 2-3):
Behind the creation formula lies a royal formula of enthronement. To be taken “from the dust” means to be elevated from obscurity to royal office and to return to dust means to be deprived of that office and returned to obscurity.
Since the royal office depends upon covenant with the appropriate god, to be taken from the dust means to be accepted as a covenant-partner and treated graciously; to return to the dust means to lose that covenant relation.
…To die and be raised is to be out of covenant and then back in covenant. So also to be “from dust” is to enter into a covenant and to return “to dust” is to have the covenant voided.
Dust is not to be taken literally but as a figure for being out of covenant, impotent and unimportant, or as Wijngaards has suggested, “dead.” The dramatic movement of dust to life to dust [Gen. 2:7, 3:9, 1 Kings 16:2-3] is in fact imagery describing the fortune and standing of the royal occupant.
Bruggeman explains that being in the covenant means having royal power and authority, and being out of the covenant means losing such power and status. Being in the dust, without power or authority, is contrasted to “sitting with princes” in 1 Samuel 2:6-8. Thus “the phrase ‘from the dust’ appears here also as a formula relating to enthronement.”
Thus "sitting" in 1 Samuel 2:6-8 is akin to the "sit" in Is. 52:2, where "arising from the dust" and "sitting" are both references to enthronement. The in 1 Samuel passage ends with a reference to the creation: “for the pillars of the earth are the Lord’s, and on them he has set the world.” (p. 3) This reference points to the stability that comes from sound kingship.
Brueggeman goes on to explain that the theme of resurrection in the Old and New Testaments is also clearly linked to rising from the dust, and he points out that these related themes run into each other and reinforce one another. Repentance, accepting and keeping covenants, enthronement, and resurrection are tied together, as are the themes of covenant breaking, dying, loss of power and status, and obscurity.
Brueggeman explicitly identifies rising from the dust with departing from "obscurity," precisely as Lehi has used it in 2 Nephi 1:23. His finding that rising from the dust also related to kingship, to enthronement, to covenant keeping, and resurrection also fits beautifully with Book of Mormon usage.
Christ also repeats Isaiah 52:1-2, and Moroni quotes it to conclude the Book of Mormon, a fitting closure in light of Lehi's early words. Here is Moroni 10:30-31:
And again I would exhort you that ye would come unto Christ and lay hold upon every good gift, and touch not the evil gift, nor the unclean thing.
And awake, and arise from the dust, O Jerusalem; yea, and put on thy beautiful garments, O daughter of Zion; and strengthen thy stakes and enlarge thy borders forever, that thou mayest no more be confounded, that the covenants of the Eternal Father which he hath made unto thee, O house of Israel, may be fulfilled.
This is a call to enter into a covenant relationship with the Redeemer, to acquire every gift that he offers — gifts that are good (echoing Nephi's name perhaps), reminding us of Lehi's plea to his children to "arise from the dust" and, in parallel to putting on the armor of righteousness that Lehi spoke off (contrasted with the chains Satan offers), Moroni asks us to put on our beautiful garments, garments that are linked to (or a symbol of) the covenants of the Father with us.
These garments may well refer to the robes and garments of the temple, where we lay hold of every good gift and learn to cast out Satan and reject his evil gifts.
Satan's gifts, like his chains, are those of darkness, or rather, the "obscurity" that Lehi begged his wayward sons to flee. Come forth out of obscurity, shun evil gifts and covenants, arise from the dust, and put on beautiful garments tied to holy covenants from the Father, and do this by coming unto Christ.
There's even more to explore in Lehi's remarkable words, which I may touch upon next time. There is so much more than meets the eye in the remarkable and authentic ancient record that we have in the Book of Mormon.
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