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View the article on Book of Mormon Central. Cover image: “Moroni Burying the Plates” by Tom Lovell.
In his prophecies about the last days, Nephi declared that “those who shall be destroyed shall speak … out of the ground, and their speech shall be low out of the dust, and their voice shall be as one that hath a familiar spirit” (2 Nephi 26:16). This passage is a reference to peoples in the Book of Mormon who were destroyed long ago. Readers may wonder, though, what a “familiar spirit” is and why the voice of deceased Nephites was being compared to an individual who possessed such a spirit.
Before trying to figure out what Nephi meant by a “familiar spirit,” readers first need to understand what Isaiah had in mind. Throughout the Old Testament, “familiar spirits” are almost exclusively discussed in a negative way. A familiar spirit was typically understood as the ghost of someone who had passed away. And those who consulted such spirits, usually to divine the future, were called necromancers.3Several biblical passages, such as Leviticus 19:31, expressly prohibited Israelites from seeking out such spirit mediums: “Regard not them that have familiar spirits, neither seek after wizards, to be defiled by them.”4
Isaiah’s use of “familiar spirit” in Isaiah 29, however, is quite unusual.5 Isaiah prophesied that after being besieged and presumably destroyed, Ariel (Jerusalem)6 would “speak out of the ground, and thy speech shall be low out of the dust, and thy voice shall be, as of one that hath a familiar spirit” (Isaiah 29:4). Isaiah’s use of “familiar spirit” clearly evokes the concept of necromancy or communicating with the dead.7 His purpose was to warn the people of their impending destruction. If they wanted to communicate with the living, they would have to do so as spirits because their physical bodies would soon be destroyed.8 Yet the appropriateness and purpose of this communication, as well as how literal or figurative it may be, is less than clear in the text.
What is clear is that Nephi felt at liberty to “liken” this metaphor to his own people, just as Isaiah had done with the people of Jerusalem.9 Much like deceased spirits were thought to be able to communicate with the living, Book of Mormon prophets knew that their words would speak to future generations “out of the dust” long after they had passed away (2 Nephi 26:16).10 Joseph Smith can be seen as a divinely prepared messenger through which these words have been conveyed to future generations (see 2 Nephi 27:19–22).11 And just as the familiar spirits were often sought to predict the future, the Book of Mormon contains many prophecies about the last days, including warnings of impending calamities if people don’t repent.12
Obviously, Isaiah’s prophecy did not approve of illicit necromancy (Isaiah 8:20; 19:3–4). Instead, he was saying that fallen Jerusalem’s ability to communicate to future generations would be similar to the voice of a spirit of a dead person. In other words, Isaiah was using necromancy as a metaphor for the sake of comparison.13 It is therefore natural and appropriate that Book of Mormon prophets felt they could follow Isaiah’s prophetic example.
Yet, like all metaphors, there is a point where the Book of Mormon’s similarities with necromancy end and important differences begin. Ancient necromancy or soothsaying sought to bring information to light through the use of unauthorized, illegitimate means. In particular, ancient mediums were thought to summon spirits from the underworld who chirped and moaned to the living.14 In stark contrast, the Book of Mormon was literally brought forth from the dust of upstate New York by an exalted heavenly being to share its powerful truths and testimony of Jesus Christ with the world today.15
In bringing forth the Book of Mormon, God allowed the dead to communicate the law and testimony of the Lord with the living (see Isaiah 8:19). This was done by sending His angel Moroni to speak clearly to Joseph Smith and also through the miraculous translation of the Book of Mormon itself.16 Unlike the mumbling of the diviners of ancient times, God did this through His own “gift and power” (1 Nephi 13:35; cf. 2 Nephi 27:12–26), as Lord of both the living and the dead (Romans 14:9).17
In a way, the Book of Mormon shows that God’s ability to allow the dead to speak to the living is superior to the forbidden practice of necromancy condemned in the Old Testament. Taking an otherwise negative topic and transforming it into a positive spiritual message is not uncommon in the Bible.18 Old Testament prophets, for instance, would sometimes compare the God of Israel to the false gods of surrounding nations and show how He surpassed them in every way.19 When viewed in this light, the production of the Book of Mormon can be seen as a divinely orchestrated miracle that turns the traditional concept of necromancy on its head.20
Thus, rather than being brought forth through an unsanctioned act of divination, the Book of Mormon has been brought forth to the world of the living by the power of Christ.21 Its words symbolically connect people living today with deceased prophets from long ago.22 Some of these prophets, like Nephi and Moroni, even saw our day. They knew that we would have their record, and in some cases, they wrote as if they were speaking directly to us from the past.23 As we open our hearts to their message, it will be as if they are speaking to us from the dust, as a true and living voice from the past.
Amanda Colleen Brown, “Out of the Dust: An Examination of Necromancy as a Literary Construct in the Book of Mormon,” Studia Antiqua 14, no. 2 (2016): 27–37.
Grant Hardy, “2 Nephi 26 and 27 as Midrash,” Insights 24, no. 5 (2004): 2–3.
Robert A. Cloward, “Isaiah 29 and the Book of Mormon,” in Isaiah in the Book of Mormon, ed. Donald W. Parry and John W. Welch (Provo, UT: FARMS, 1998), 191–247.