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Interpreting Interpreter
For Their Good

This post is a summary of the article ““For Their Good Have I Written Them”: The Onomastic Allusivity and Literary Function of 2 Nephi 25:8” by Matthew L. Bowen in Volume 53 of Interpreter: A Journal of Latter-day Saint Faith and Scholarship. An introduction to the Interpreting Interpreter series is available at


The Takeaway

Bowen proposes that Nephi used the term “good” to demarcate his quotations of Isaiah in 2 Nephi 6-24, similar to how he seems to have done for 1 and 2 Nephi more generally, suggesting that Nephi included those chapters for the “good” of Lehi’s descendants.

The Summary

In this article, Matthew L. Bowen expands on his previous work proposing that the terms “good” and “goodness” in 1 and 2 Nephi could reflect wordplay on the name “Nephi”. Bowen had suggested that allusions to the name, representing an attested variation on the Egyptian word nfr, meaning “good”, “goodly”, “fine”, or “fair”, may have been used as an inclusio, a method of bracketing sections of text to highlight a specific function or theme. Where Bowen had previously cited the examples of 1 Nephi 1 (e.g., “having been born of goodly parents”) and 2 Nephi 33 (e.g., “they teach all men that they should do good…and you that will not partake of the goodness of God”) as forming an inclusio around all of Nephi’s writings, he here proposes a similar inclusio around many of Nephi’s quotations of Isaiah, marked off by 2 Nephi 5:30-31 (“and thou shalt engraven many things upon them which are good”) and 2 Nephi 25:7-8 (for their good have I written them). According to Bowen, this highlights the purpose of Nephi’s inclusion of the Isaiah quotations—that is, to “perpetuate a legacy of good” among Lehi’s descendants, a purpose which closely aligns with the purpose of Nephi’s record more generally.

As evidence of his proposal, Bowen cites Nephi’s use of a passage in Isaiah 55, where Nephi interprets Isaiah’s injunction to “come, buy wine and milk without money and without price”. In Isaiah 55, the prophet follows by saying “eat ye that which is good”, and though this isn’t directly quoted by Nephi, he does reference the similar phrase “partake of his goodness” multiple times later in the chapter. These passages reference the goodness of God, which, through the meaning of Nephi’s name, is associated with his own people (the people of Nephi, the “fair ones”), as well as Nephi’s writing (i.e., the plates of Nephi). For Bowen, this continued thematic emphasis on the term “good” helps to solidify his proposed inclusio.

Aside from his general argument, Bowen also includes several interesting details that readers may have missed in his previous articles. This includes a discussion of the vowel shifts connecting the word nfr to the name Nephi, as well as the range of meaning associated with that Egyptian word (which leaves open the idea that “fair” could refer to being “equitable” or “just” rather than skin color). These details help to provide additional shape and texture to Bowen’s already detailed proposal.

The Reflection

Bowen’s argument here is a natural extension of his original proposal for Nephi’s inclusio—if Nephi could do such a thing once, what is there to stop him from doing it again, in different areas of the text and for a similar purpose? And if he could do it twice, why not more? What other examples of inclusio might have gone unnoticed, whether by Nephi or other ancient authors following the same pattern?

This thought does bring to mind the question: by what criteria can an inclusio be identified? With as many times as the word good is used by Nephi, how can we tell a true inclusio from the repeated but normal use of a relatively common word? Why end this particular inclusio at 2 Nephi 25 instead of 2 Nephi 26? This is perhaps similar to the problem of judging intentional from non-intentional chiasmus, though chiasmus seems to have more characteristics to work with than an inclusio (where all you appear to need is a single repeated word as much as dozens of pages apart). It would be interesting to see Bowen or others explore that question in-depth.

It was also interesting for Bowen to note an instance where Nephi appeared to alter one of his quotations of Isaiah, changing a passage referencing “wine and milk” to “milk and honey”, a change that appears to be an intentional allusion to the Exodus narrative, which is of obvious relevance to Nephi and his journey to the New World. This is an example of an idea I’ve discussed before—that the differences we see between the Book of Mormon’s Isaiah chapters and the KJV may represent intentional changes to the original text by the ancient authors, attempts to perhaps literally liken the scriptures to their own situation and rhetorical purposes. I find this idea preferrable to requiring every change to reflect a heretofore undiscovered variation in Isaiah’s original Hebrew (and I see it as a potentially effective response to those who would use the KJV variations as a stick with which to flog the Restoration). But I haven’t yet seen any others flesh out (or rebut) that line of thinking. If anyone wanted to do so, I think it would be a valuable way to move the conversation forward.

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