Getting to Know Joseph Spencer Author of The Vision of All: Twenty-five Lectures on Isaiah in Nephi's Record

The Vision of All
This interview with Joseph Spencer, who wrote “The Vision of All,’ explains his unique path to understanding Isaiah through Nephi’s mind

Ken Krogue:  Hi everybody, Ken Krogue here with Joseph Spencer and we’re talking today about Isaiah and some new elements that Joseph has added specifically to BYU scholarship. He is a philosophy professor in the middle of the religion department. That’s a bit unique, isn’t it?

Joe Spencer:  Yes.

Ken:  Has it been an interesting perspective? Tell us, has there ever been a philosophy professor in the religion department?

Joe:  Yes at one point, philosophy and religion were actually one department, way before my time.

Ken:  Philosophy of men, mingled with scripture.

Joe:  Something like that, but from what I understand the point they separated ways, the only person left in the religion department, if I’m not mistaken, was Truman Madsen.

Ken:  Well it doesn’t get much better than that.

Joe:   Right.

Ken:  That’s awesome.

Joe:  So, I think I may be the first philosopher there since Truman.

Ken:  Oh wow, that’s great. Well, I heard some of his talks on Joseph Smith and I loved that.  And Ann Manson is still involved.

Joseph:  She is.

Ken:  She teaches Isaiah. We’ve interviewed her with podcasts and some of the fun stuff with Search Isaiah already. So is it okay if we just jump in and ask you some questions?

Joe:  Sure.

Ken:  Thanks for joining us today. But one of the things, what was the pathway that took you through graduate level scholarship to BYU?

Joe:  It’s been a weird road. It’s been a very weird road for me. So,  I don’t know how much detail you want. I  originally planned on studying music before I realized I had no talent and then…

Ken:  Note to self.

Joe:  Then I thought I’d do business. I’d worked in the music business or something like that and then realized I didn’t like that at all, but in an economics class I took, we read some philosophers who had dealt with the political economy and that kind of thing and I fell in love, and I changed my major without having studied any philosophy, and then left on my mission.

Ken:  Where’d you go by the way?

Joe:  California. Yeah, Spanish speaking. So, when I came back I began taking philosophy courses. I was looking at the possibility of teaching in seminary or something like that, though that didn’t quite pan out and it didn’t draw my attention as I thought it might.

I studied philosophy when we, my wife and I finished at BYU, actually left the academy. I wasn’t planning on being a professor, we opened a small bookstore in eastern Washington, that survived for a little while. But then we closed up shop and I went and did a master’s in Library Science thinking I would stay in the book world.

In the meanwhile, began working in Mormon studies. At that time, I was doing primarily sort of philosophical reading of scripture, got involved in a few scholarly organizations and that kind of thing. As I was finishing my master’s in Library Science, I got a call from someone at Utah Valley University saying, we have a few philosophy courses that need to be taught, are you available? And I said, yeah, anything besides going on the job market, sounds great. So, I went and taught for a year and two weeks in the classroom which convinced me to go and get a Ph.D. in philosophy.

Ken:  Where did you go for your Ph.D.?

Joe:  I did my master’s and my Ph.D. at the University of New Mexico and Philosophy. And my plan was not to teach religion, my plan was to teach philosophy, but I kept doing work in Mormon studies and publishing, especially on the book of Mormon and doing theological work  and it drew the attention of some folks in religious education and they reached out to me and said, would you be interested? And so, I added that to my list of possibilities and pursued that and landed there. So, it’s been a very strange road, very long.

Ken:  How long have you been at BYU now?

Joe:  So, complicated question. I started teaching there in 2015 just part time, after I was there a year, I was just doing that after I finished my Ph.D. while looking for jobs, after doing part-time for a year, then I came on full time, but in a temporary position. And then this fall, I’m starting in a tenure-track position. It’s permanent.

Ken:  Great. Well, that’s wonderful. What are some of the projects you’re working on right now?

Joe:  Too many. So, I’m working on a really big book on Isaiah, on Isaiah in the book of Mormon. It’s pitched at a non-Mormon audience. So not to Latter-day saints at all, though I’m sure that’s who primarily read it. I’m three-quarters of the way through a good solid first draft of that. So that occupies most of my time right now.

I’m working on a small book on gender in the Book of Mormon with another scholar Kim Berkey, who is at Loyola University. I’ve recently committed to doing a small book on Hugh Nibley’s thought; what was his contribution to Mormon thought.

Ken:  Can you do a small book on Hugh Nibley’s thought?

Joe:  It’s a good question. I’m supposed to do it under 45,000 words, so it better be short.

Ken:  Well, that’s great. As you’re looking into the future and thinking about some things you really want to accomplish, where do you want to go with this focus?

Joe:  Yeah, it’s a good question. I’ve got some long-term plans, that changes constantly,  for my scholarship. I want to do a couple more major projects on Isaiah.

Ken:  What’s pulled you to Isaiah.

Joe:  That’s another story. Shall I answer the first question first?

Ken:  You have to just bear with me. When an idea comes, I sort of run with it.

Joe:  I want to do a few more projects on Isaiah, connected to Mormonism primarily, but then on the other side of that, I want to tackle the uses and connections to the book of Revelation in LDS scripture.  This has been sort of on the horizon for me for a while, but I’ve committed to doing a paper this November on it, at a conference in Denver. So I’ve got to start getting earnest about that project, but I think that’s what I’ll turn to once I’ve finished most of what I want to do on Isaiah.

Ken:  Okay. So, let’s go to Isaiah now. Why Isaiah? What intrigues you about that?

Joe:  Yeah, it’s been a long, slow development, a long growth of interest in Isaiah. I mean, it began in some sense in the mission field or whatever, or just reading the book of Mormon carefully,  and wanting to understand this because…

Ken:  So, it came from the Book of Mormon.

Joe:  Yeah. And I mean it’s there that we have Christ Himself, saying, hey, take this seriously. And so, I felt like I should. I had absolutely no idea what it was saying but I was working as hard as I could with what limited tools I had.

When I came back to BYU from my mission, I took courses in Hebrew and so on. And our first Christmas together, my wife gave me a Hebrew Bible as a gift.

I began, but I didn’t know much Hebrew yet. I was literally at the end of my first semester in Hebrew, so I sat down with dictionaries and what I did know and started working my way from Isaiah 1 onward. And that’s sort of where it began. And reading it with some tools in hand, they’ve made infinitely more sense than it ever had. So that sort of fired me up.

I didn’t plan on doing much more than just being a good latter-day saint then reading it carefully, until, my wife and I were doing some study together, pretty early in our marriage and stumbled on my reading of 1 Nephi 19 where I think Nephi lays out the structure of his whole project and that suggested really strongly, I argue about this in my book. It suggested to me really strongly that Nephi is telling us that the whole point of his record, is Isaiah; what he calls the more sacred part or the plain and precious part of his record.

Ken:  I felt similarly.

Joe:  Yeah, 2nd Nephi 6 through 30, which is Isaiah, Isaiah, Isaiah all through. And so, that got me fired up.  I’m like, ok,

Ken:  Something’s there. It’s really big.

Joe:  Yeah, exactly, it’s not just that we have the Lord telling us, hey, you need to study this, we’ve also got Nephi saying, you haven’t understood me at all, if you haven’t sorted out what’s going on with Isaiah. So that got me interested more and committed more and that’s how my first book came about, was trying to work out Nephi’s project and what it suggested.

Ken:  Yeah, we call that process, Nephi’s journey and then we’re trying to say, look, you know, his father sees a vision, Jerusalem is going to be destroyed. They leave, they go back three times, they get the records, they get Ishmael and his family,  and then they go out into the Wilderness for eight years. We’ve looked at that. That’s not an eight-year trip.

Joe:  No, it shouldn’t be.

Ken:  I mean, walking really slow, it’s a year. Right. And if you’re booking it, it’s a few months. You know, they were there for eight years, but during that time, tree of life, father, son, and then an angel explaining it and then he sees the same visions of John, the revelator and our day, he’s worried about his descendants and then the Lord said, you’re forbidden to say more.  Right, and then he builds the ship, learns to smelt metal, and sails across to the new world. And the next thing he does is insert Isaiah. Something’s up. Is that what intrigued you?

Joe:   Yeah, I mean, at first it was just, okay, so why is Isaiah so important? What’s he interested in here? Can I sort that out?

Ken:  Do you feel like you know yet?

Joe:  Oh yeah. I think I do. I hope that doesn’t sound arrogant.

Ken:  No, no, not at all. Keep going. Tell us moreJoseph:  What eventually became clear to me. I mean, the first thing I think to say here is that Nephi is actually quite explicit about how he’s organizing his record. He takes…there are these moments where he steps back from the story he’s telling or from the prophecies he’s writing and says, okay, here’s what to expect, here’s where you can find what I’m doing. And he tells you a kind of organization of his project. And it would take us time if we wanted to go through the texts themselves, but basically…

Ken:  Maybe we should do that at some point.  Wouldn’t that be fun, because actually, we’re trying to help people get in and search Isaiah, maybe as a follow-up you could guide us?

Joseph:  Yeah.

Ken:  But keep going.

Joseph:  Once you see the kind of map, if you will, that Nephi has got of his record, then you can begin to see what he’s doing. This is a lot of what I do in the vision as well.

He’s trying to say, okay, here are two sources of prophecy. There’s this brass plate record we brought from Jerusalem and there’s this dream my father had. And then he starts to unpack each of them. He has the dream himself and this massive, complicated version and then he starts reading from Isaiah itself and explaining it, this is all the second half of 1st Nephi. So, he’s giving you two prophetic sources, he’s beginning to unpack them and show that they’re related. And then when you get to 2nd Nephi, he weaves them together through Jacob’s prophecies and through his own.

And 2nd Nephi is really all about how these two sources are related. Eventually, I think it took me some time, but I came to see how it all seems to operate. He’s got a kind of project. It’s maybe we’re saying, Nephi doesn’t write the record we’re reading, the small plates, until 30 plus years after they’ve left Jerusalem. We sometimes read it like it’s a journal where it’s like he’s just, well, here’s what happened with Leman and Lemuel bothering me today. But, no, he sat on these experiences for 30 years and he’s read Isaiah and he’s got these visions and he sat with them for decades and now he’s taking the time to sketch a way of communicating what’s there. And I think once you see the structure, it becomes really clear what he’s trying to do.  Here are these two prophetic sources; the written record, my own father’s dream, and now we can start to unpack how they help one to understand each other and then it becomes clear what he’s up to.

There’s this brass plate record we bought from Jerusalem and there’s this dream my father had. And then he starts to unpack each of them.

Ken:  You used a fun word: unpack. You know, we’ve got our one-minute Isaiah challenge where we have like 1,500 people take the survey where they grade themselves on their level of scripture study and we were laughing earlier, you know, level one is “skip”. And even Elder Holland says, if you can’t get through it, we’ll skip the 2nd Nephi and keep going. Don’t stop. But skip, and then skim, then read, then study, then search, then search diligently. Then feast and you know, honestly and right in the middle, in fact, several times Nephi says, you’re not gonna understand this unless you understand sort of the way of the Jews and what they do. But I would say we Latter-Day Saints, we sort of stay at level three where we read it, like, I know, I put my chart up and mark three chapters a day and read it like a novel. But that’s not what you mean by unpacking the scripture. Tell us more. If we were going to start doing some things on our own to move to study or to even search, what does that mean to unpack?  Maybe give us a few examples.

Joseph:  Yeah. There’s a lot of prep work, I think, is part of what’s difficult. Right.

Ken:  So, what do you mean by prep work?

Joseph:  I mean, the first thing is, just the task of reading Isaiah is hard because the language is archaic.

Ken:  Okay. So, you’ve got to figure out language and idioms and…

Joseph:  Yeah, the part of its idioms, but part of its just words. So, for example, we’re reading, even in the Book of Mormon, when we get Isaiah, we’re getting it in King James English. It’s 400 years old and a lot of the words have stayed the same over 400 years, but the kinds of words that have changed are actually the most concrete, down to earth words.  They’re the words we use the most, and so they’re the ones that actually seem to change… I’m not a linguist, but that’s the general sense I’ve got.  And as you read Isaiah, you see that, you’ll get words in there and you’re like, I don’t know what that’s supposed to mean. And then if you look at a historical dictionary, you go, oh, or if you look at a Hebrew.

Ken:  So, you have to do your homework on some of the meanings of the word, some of the historical context. So, you can know what’s going on.

Joseph:  Right? So yeah, first would be just the language barrier, two is going to be historical context.  When Isaiah is talking about Assyria if you don’t know anything about Assyria…

Ken:  So, get the maps out, probably the maps back then. Some of the countries aren’t the same.

Joseph:  Yeah, exactly. And some of it is just going to have to be understanding history. You’ve got about a 250-year history that’s very important for understanding Isaiah, from the middle of the 8th century BC down to the middle of the sixth century BC, at least, because it’s going to cover things going on with Assyria, it’s going to cover things going on with Babylon, a bit with Persia, and if these names mean nothing, then it’s really hard to know what Isaiah is talking about at all.

Ken:  You’ve done some fun themes with unpacking it. You tried to take it from Nephi’s perspective.

Joseph:  Yes.

Ken:  That’s pretty cool.  Well, what led you to that perspective?

Joseph:  Well, I mean I got interested in Isaiah because of Nephi, so in some sense, I’ve actually in some ways spent more time trying to figure out what Nephi is doing with Isaiah than I’ve ever tried to figure out what Isaiah is doing with Isaiah.  Nephi’s Isaiah is my Isaiah, so to speak.

Ken:  Well, to Nephi, I think you’ve said this. I mean, the prophet of his day was Isaiah, a lot like Joseph Smith was the prophet of our day, so that’s pretty powerful. That’s referring to the prophet and most of the time it’s Isaiah.

Joseph:  That’s right. Yeah. So, it’s something like that, right? He’s invested in Isaiah for some obvious reasons. He’s still the influential, towering prophetic figure. He’s got this prominent place in the brass plates that are very clear. Part of it is the themes, though. If there’s anything that draws Nephi to Isaiah, it’s the specific themes that Isaiah talks about.

Ken:  What do you mean?

Joseph:  The remnant. So, you read the title page of the Book of Mormon and it talks about a remnant, this has got to be brought to the knowledge of the remnant.  That’s not any old language, that’s Isaiah’s language.  And Nephi has had visions where he’s seen what’s going to happen to his people. Some destroyed, some kept as a remnant. He reads Isaiah and goes, hey, that looks familiar. I’ve seen this. The theme of a certain Messianic theme, a coming King. That’s not surprising to any Christian reader right, but also the idea of a sealed book. It’s buried up for a later time. People not listening at a certain time.  Nephi says that’s exactly what I’ve seen in the vision.  I’m going to write this stuff. My descendants are going to write these things. They’re not going to listen, and my people will be completely destroyed, but then the book can be buried and sealed up for a later generation.

That’s right out of Isaiah, so I think he reads Isaiah and says, oh, this is almost point-by-point, what I’ve seen in my vision.  The really big picture thing that he sees, that I think often gets missed, is the relationship between Israel and the Gentiles. That’s the heart of Isaiah, especially of the latter half of Isaiah and Nephi sees there the various story about his brother’s descendants.

Ken:  Wow. Well, and quite often we as Latter-Day Saints think we’re Israel, but we’re not.  We’re the Gentiles.

Joseph:  Not in the book of Mormon.  The Book Mormon would call us gentiles. Would call, I should say, Latter-Day Saints of European descent, right? There’s plenty of people in the church who are…

Ken:  In fact, the title page, it’s written to the Jews, the remnant and the lost tribes, right? And the Gentiles get to come along for the ride if they’re willing, it sounds like.

Joseph: Well, I think that’s the picture. So that picture that Isaiah gives you of a relationship between Israel and the gentiles is crucial to Nephi. And it’s not a simple story. It’s not just to kind of like, oh, Gentiles are kind of involved if they want to be, right. It’s a story about Israel getting off the track and God going, how do I get these people to fulfill their responsibility?

Because their responsibility is to bring all the nations to an understanding of the truth and to introduce peace to the world that’s filled with war and hatred and so on. And Israel is not doing its job, so to speak.

And so, what Isaiah essentially says is, well, you’re going to be sent off into exile, you’re going to find yourself in a circumstance where you’re surrounded with Gentiles to whom you ought to be taking this message. And then I’ll bring you out of there in a miraculous way. I’ll deliver you and bring you home, in a way that will wake the Gentiles up and then they’ll see that this is the true God.  So this happens already anciently. Isaiah is clearly talking about Babylon and Persia and so on, this happening there when Jews come out of exile and return to Jerusalem, Persia will be involved, and kings will help, and so on.  Nephi says that’s what Isaiah was talking about. I’ve seen something almost identical happening in the future again, and now it’s going to be the remnant of Israel, Laminates, living among Gentiles who have come from Europe and colonized and devastated native populations and all this kind of thing. But then this book, coming forth to this remnant in such a spectacular and miraculous way that’ll wake Gentiles up and help them to recognize who the true God.

Ken:  This is pretty remarkable. So although the prophecies of Isaiah were fulfilled in his day, historical, Nephi saw our day and realized those same prophecies have a full end time scenario. It seems like there’s a dual, and it’s applicable to both places.

Joseph:  Nephi’s word for this is likening, so we often take likening and we’re like, oh, I have to apply it to my everyday life. We can do that, but I don’t think it’s what Nephi’s got in mind at all when he says likening, he says, here’s what Isaiah was talking about, he’s talking about Jews at a very specific time, under very specific circumstances, but because God is dealing there with Israel and we’re Israel, he’s going to do the same thing. We’re getting the same pattern again and again and again.

Ken:  What was will be again.

Joseph:   Exactly. So, he sees it happening multiple times. And Jacob puts this very simply, and this is in 2nd Nephi, 6 when he starts talking about Isaiah, he says, before I talked to you about things in the past, now I want to talk to you about things that are now, and things that are coming. So, I’m going to read to you from Isaiah. What’s going on right in Jacob’s time is the fulfillment of Isaiah and it’s literal historical sense. But then Jacob’s going to liken it to what Nephi and he have seen in vision, latter-day, laminate redemption with gentiles.

Ken:  The layers and the depth of Isaiah to be able to be applicable in all three areas is just mind-blowing.

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