Question: Why does 2 Nephi 19:1 change the word "sea" in Isaiah 9 to "Red Sea"?

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Question: Why does 2 Nephi 19:1 change the word "sea" in Isaiah 9 to "Red Sea"?

Introduction to Question

Isaiah 9:1 in the King James Bible reads as follows (italics from KJV included for convenience):

Nevertheless the dimness shall not be such as was in her vexation, when at the first he lightly afflicted the land of Zebulun and the land of Naphtali, and afterward did more grievously afflict her by the way of the sea, beyond Jordan, in Galilee of the nations.

2 Nephi 19:1, a quotation of Isaiah by the prophet Nephi, reads:

Nevertheless, the dimness shall not be such as was in her vexation, when at first he lightly afflicted the land of Zebulun, and the land of Naphtali, and afterwards did more grievously afflict by the way of the Red Sea beyond Jordan in Galilee of the nations.

The Book of Mormon deletes the word "her" from Isaiah 9:1 and then inserts "Red" before "sea" making the verse read "afflict by way of the Red Sea". "The problem with this", describes critic Jeremy T. Runnells, "is that (a) Christ quoted Isaiah in Matt. 4:14–15 and did not mention the Red Sea [this is true], (b) 'Red' sea is not found in any source manuscripts [from which one could translate Isaiah. Also true.], and (c) the Red Sea [Runnells likely is referring more specifically to the Gulf of Aqaba] is 250 miles away [from the sea of Galilee, which the Isaiah prophecy refers to in context]."[1]

In context, Isaiah is prophetically anticipating "a period of gloom and darkness until a new Davidic monarch arises to replace Ahaz."[2] Several interpreters take this chapter to be speaking about the coming Messiah.

All proposed solutions to this problem are outlined in this article.

Response to Question

Solution #1: Scribal Overcorrection

John Tvedtnes explains:

9:1 (MT 8:23) = 2 Ne. 19:1

KJV: "afflict her by the way of the sea"

BM: "afflict by the way of the Red Sea"

The deletion of italicized "her" is understandable, since it is not in [the Masoretic Text: the source for most current translations of Isaiah]. (I) However, BM [Book of Mormon] must be wrong in speaking of the "RED Sea", which is certainly not "beyond Jordan, in Galilee", nor near the tribes of Zebulun and Naphtali. This appears to be a case of scribal overcorrection, due to prior mention of the Red Sea in the BM text.[3]

In other words, Tvedtnes suggests that the addition of the word "red" is an example of Oliver Cowdery "over-hearing" (hearing "sea" and adding "red" in error).

Solution #2: An error while copying the original manuscript to the printer's manuscript

D. Charles Pyle suggested that the error may be the result of Oliver miscopying the original manuscript to the Printer's manuscript, presumably following similar logic to that of John Tvedtnes.

Solution #3: Egyptian translator's error

Pyle also suggested that it's possible to understand this as an error of an Egyptian translator into Hebrew and that Joseph Smith translated this passage, error and all, into English.

Solution #4: Joseph inserting a word where it was missing

Author Stan Spencer wrote a long article for Interpreter: A Journal of Latter-day Saint Faith and Scholarship in which he discussed the italics in the King James Bible as used in the Book of Mormon. When translating passages in the Book of Mormon that are quotations of the King James Bible, scholars of the Book of Mormon note that a large amount of differences between the King James Bible and the Book of Mormon's quotations of it center around the italics. The italics are sometimes omitted and sometimes revised in the Book of Mormon. Spencer outlined three possibilities to account for the differences between the King James Bible text and the Book of Mormon quotations of it:

  1. The first of these was created by Elder B.H. Roberts. Roberts hypothesized that the italics interaction represents what was on the actual Book of Mormon plates. In Spencer's words: "Roberts attributes the differences in the Book of Mormon to ancient variants in the Nephite plates, presumably reflecting the record on the brass plates, at least in the chapters Nephi and Jacob say they are reading, According to Roberts, the version of Isaiah in the Book of Mormon is consistently “superior [in] sense and clearness.” Spencer calls this the Ancient Variants Hypothesis.
  2. The second hypothesis Spencer calls the Italics Revision Hypothesis. This is the theory held by people like Stan Larson, David P. Wright, and faithful Latter-day Saint Book of Mormon scholar Brant Gardner. This theory holds that Joseph Smith was intentionally targeting italics in the King James Bible, knowing what they meant, and intentionally revising them or dropping them.
  3. The third hypothesis, Spencer's own theory, he calls the Missing Words Hypothesis. This theory holds that Joseph was given a vision of a biblical passage in his mind with missing KJV italics and that part of the work of translation for Joseph Smith was to decide whether to supply words to the passage and, if so, what words to supply.

Thus, under Spencer's thinking, Joseph Smith could have seen the passage from Isaiah 9:1 in the Book of Mormon and inserted "red" before sea—perhaps thinking that the text in Isaiah was somehow in error.[4]

Solution #5: The Way of the Red Sea

The following response is provided by Jeff Lindsay,

In the Book of Mormon, 2 Nephi 19:1 reads:

Nevertheless, the dimness shall not be such as was in her vexation, when at first he lightly afflicted the land of Zebulun, and the land of Naphtali, and afterwards did more grievously afflict by the way of the Red Sea beyond Jordan in Galilee of the nations. [emphasis added]

This verse is a quotation of Isaiah 9:1, which reads in the KJV as follows:

Nevertheless the dimness shall not be such as was in her vexation, when at the first he lightly afflicted the land of Zebulun and the land of Naphtali, and afterward did more grievously afflict her by the way of the sea, beyond Jordan, in Galilee of the nations.

The Book of Mormon deletes "her" from the KJV and changes "sea" to "Red Sea." Based on verse 1 in light of verse 2 from Isaiah, many people conclude that the sea is the Sea of Galilee, not the Red Sea. The KJV for Isaiah 9:2 is:

The people that walked in darkness have seen a great light: they that dwell in the land of the shadow of death, upon them hath the light shined.

So yes, these verses do appear to be a prophecy of the ministry of Christ, and the Sea of Galilee would make sense. So why does the Book of Mormon have the puzzling reference to the Red Sea? Here is a possible explanation offered by D. Charles Pyle in e-mail received June 2004:

There are those who say that this is an error. It is possible that it is a scribal error on the part of Oliver Cowdery in copying the printer's manuscript from the original manuscript. The problem is that this cannot be proven or disproven because this portion of the original manuscript no longer is extant. It also is possible that the Egyptian textual translation of the Hebrew is in error and that Joseph Smith translated it, error and all. On the other hand, it also is possible that it is not an error at all.

The King's Highway also was part of what was known in ancient times as the Way of the Red Sea, which led out of Egypt along the shores of the Red Sea, passed through Edom and changed direction after meeting with the Way of the Sea, in Galilee, to go into Mesopotamia. It is possible that Joseph journeyed this way, or at least part of this way, to avoid going through Judaea when he took Jesus into Nazareth as a young child. If so, it would be quite correct in that the light would pass into the region of Naphtali via the Way of the Red Sea. Joseph sought to avoid contact with Archelaus and a back route would be one of the best ways to avoid contact.

We also know that Jesus went into the wilderness for his temptation after being baptized in a region on the other side of the Jordan. The English Book of Mormon has Bethabara as do several versions of the Bible while [several other translations have] Bethany beyond Jordan. He would then have come down from Galilee to be baptized on the other side of the Jordan (east of the river; 'beyond Jordan' meant to the east of the Jordan River), and come down around the Way of the Red Sea and around the Dead Sea to the Wilderness of Judaea. Remember, Jesus' wandered the wilderness for forty days, plenty of time to travel around the Dead Sea in that manner, that region being one the most inhospitable in the main. There are possible hints that Jesus came through Edom or Idumea. One way that he could have done so is to travel the Way of the Red Sea, which passes through Edom. The records of Jesus' life and travels are scanty at best and it is impossible to know for certainty at this time. In any case, I am not willing to state without good evidence that this passage is in error with any degree of certainty, for in my opinion there is no certainty either way. I have sifted through much contradictory 'evidence' and have formed no solid conclusion on this textual matter.

Bottom line: we're not really sure, but there are a couple of reasonable possibilities consistent with the concept of the Book of Mormon being an authentic ancient text translated by divine aid (but still going through fallible human hands in the process). There is a plausible basis from the ancient world for referring to the sea as the Red Sea. On the other hand, if Joseph were relying on his knowledge of the Bible and fabricating the text, changing "sea" to "Red Sea" would make no sense. What would motivate a Bible literate fabricator to make such a change?[5]

Solution #6: Nephi's "likening" of Isaiah to his contemporary historical and theological context

In another article, we've discussed how this verse in the Book of Mormon actually perpetuates a translation error of Isaiah made by the King James translators of the Bible. Instead of saying "and afterwards did more grievously afflict by the way of the sea", the text should say "but in the future he will honor Galilee of the Gentiles, by the way of the sea, along the Jordan".[6] A question now arises: could the translation of "grievously afflicting" actually be some sort of modification by Nephi that provides commentary on Nephi? We know that there were modifications done by Nephi to affect the meaning and intent of Isaiah's scripture as a sort of commentary on Nephi's present situation that Nephi calls “likening” (1 Nephi 19:23). Could there be something similar going on here? As a guess, this may have something to do with the difficult journey that Lehi, Nephi, and their family faced by the borders of the Red Sea as they traveled down the Arabian Peninsula. Latter-day Saint linguist and scholar of the textual history of the Book of Mormon Skousen actually tells us that he believes that "Red Sea" was not an accident by scribes of the Book of Mormon translation. He believes that "Red Sea" was actually on the plates that Joseph Smith translated from. He deduces this from the fact that there is no manuscript evidence that scribes of the Book of Mormon translation text inserted "Red" next to "sea" even in the original manuscript of the translation of the Book of Mormon. Also, there are four uses in the Bible of the phrase "by the way of the Red Sea" (Numbers 14:25; Numbers 21:4; Deuteronomy 1:40; Deuteronomy 2:1). Familiarity with the phrase, Skousen argues, perhaps led Nephi to add the word "Red" to sea in his copying of Isaiah. Either that or "Red" was actually a part of the text and Nephi didn't add anything to it. Furthermore, out of 82 occurrences of the word "sea" in the Book of Mormon, there is no manuscript evidence that scribes added "Red" to the word "sea", even as a mistake that was then corrected.[7] Skousen retained "Red Sea" in his reconstruction of the earliest text of the Book of Mormon: the text as it came from the mouth of Joseph Smith (or at least the best reconstruction of it).[8] Again, Nephi was "likening" Isaiah to his current situation and understanding all throughout the Book of Mormon quotations of Isaiah by changing text (1 Nephi 19:23). It's likely that something similar is going on here. Thus, it's not an error, but (on this theory at least) an intentional emendation by Nephi to creatively "liken" the scriptures Isaiah wrote to his present situation that was then correctly translated by Joseph Smith from the plates to the English language. Thus, the intent of the verse is changed and does actually lead us into an incorrect understanding of what Isaiah meant to communicate about God’s nature. But it isn’t an error of what Nephi meant to communicate about God with his likening of Isaiah. If Nephi is likening this passage to himself and his then-current situation and understanding, then there is no error. It would again just be Joseph Smith’s translation of Nephi’s “likening” of Isaiah. Thus Isaiah meant to say honor, but Nephi changed it to being about affliction of his family by God while they were traveling near the Red Sea.

To strengthen this theory, it's interesting that in 1 Nephi 16, 1 Nephi 17, 1 Nephi 18, 2 Nephi 1, 2 Nephi 2, 2 Nephi 3, 2 Nephi 4, and 2 Nephi 5 Nephi mentions that he and his family experienced afflictions and that they began to murmur against God—perhaps presupposing that God was the source of those afflictions given their wickedness. Nephi says that the afflictions that he and his family faced in 1 Nephi 16 when he lost his bow came at a time when they were traveling in "the most fertile parts of the wilderness, which were in the borders near the Red Sea" (1 Nephi 16:14. Emphasis added).

Notes

  1. Jeremy T. Runnells, CES Letter: My Search for Answers to My Mormon Doubts (n.p.: CES Letter Foundation, 2017), 9.
  2. Marvin A. Sweeney, "Isaiah," in The New Oxford Annotated Bible, ed. Michael D. Coogan, 5th ed. (New York: Oxford University Press, 2018), 992n8.18–9.7.
  3. John Tvedtnes, "The Isaiah Variants in the Book of Mormon," FARMS Preliminary Reports (1981): 45.
  4. Stan Spencer, "Missing Words: King James Bible Italics, the Translation of the Book of Mormon, and Joseph Smith as an Unlearned Reader," Interpreter: A Journal of Latter-day Saint Faith and Scholarship 38 (2020): 45–106 (esp. 56–68).
  5. Jeff Lindsay, "Why does 2 Nephi 19:1 incorrectly change 'sea' in Isaiah 9 to 'Red Sea'?", LDS FAQ: Mormon Answers.
  6. Royal Skousen, The History of the Text of the Book of Mormon, Part Five: King James Quotations in the Book of Mormon (Provo, UT: FARMS, 2019), 216.
  7. Royal Skousen, Analysis of Textual Variants of the Book of Mormon Part Two: 2 Nephi 11 – Mosiah 16 (Provo, UT: FARMS, 2014), 732–33.
  8. Royal Skousen, ed., The Book of Mormon: The Earliest Text, 2nd ed. (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2022), 119.