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Interpreting Interpreter
A Stone—Great, Last and Sure

This post is a summary of the article ““This Stone Shall Become the Great, and the Last, and the Only Sure Foundation”: A Nephite Poetics of Dramatic Fusion and Transfer in Jacob 5” by Matthew Scott Stenson in Volume 61 of Interpreter: A Journal of Latter-day Saint Faith and Scholarship. All of the Interpreting Interpreter articles may be seen at An introduction to the Interpreting Interpreter series is available at


The Takeaway

Stenson identifies three images—the olive vineyard, the sheepfold and pasture, and the cornerstone—that appear to be fused in the writings of Nephi and Jacob, arguing that they represent not only Christ in his role as a Good Shepherd, but also the sacred record by which he gathers his sheep and which they can use as a sure foundation. For Stenson, this process represents a literary tragicomedy, with the tragedy of Israel’s downfall being countered by the comedy of its unification in Christ.


The Summary

In this article, Matthew Scott Stenson deals with the idea of fused imagery, which he defines as “a poetic…mingling of symbols and metaphors to illustrate diverse aspects of a topic or theme,” using as his examples Deuteronomy 33 (where God is compared to a series of diverse images in rapid succession), Isaiah, and Milton (where uses similarly fused imagery in its expansion of Genesis 1-3). Focusing on three central images used in the small plates of the Book of Mormon, Stenson applies some flexibility in the interpretation of those images and uses the literary lens of tragedy and comedy in studying how Zenos synthesizes these images in his allegory of the olive tree as well as in other passages connected to it, including 2 Nephi 25 and 3 Nephi 27.

Stenson outlines this imagery as follows:

Stenson sees this imagery as helping form one continuous story, in the same way that the early chapters of Isaiah detail Israel’s progression from disaster to redemption, with Jacob using Christ-infused imagery as a pivot point in that redemptive arc. Stenson divides the allegory of Jacob 5 into two parts, the former representing a tragedy (a structure that moves toward an unhappy ending), and the latter a comedy (a structure that moves toward a happy ending), making the combined arc a form of tragicomedy as a devastated Israel is made whole in Christ.

Stenson argues that Jacob and Nephi fuse the three seemingly disparate images, a practice that Nephi seems to engage with when reading Isaiah to his brothers and restating Lehi’s prophecies. This practice may be supported by the shared cultural details that underlie these images (e.g., ancient sheepfolds being made of tree branches woven into a fence). For Stenson, this fused imagery is meant to draw attention not just to Christ, but to the gospel record—an assertion supported by Jacob’s framing of the allegory with chapters that emphasize the record’s production and importance. As Stenson notes:

“The tryptic images of vineyard, sheepfold, and cornerstone come together rather easily if it is remembered that they all have a correspondence to Christ, who is the Good Shepherd, his sacred words (or familiar voice), and his eschatological work of gathering his sheep to pastures where they might dwell safely before, during and after he comes in fire and glory.”


The Reflection

I have no discomfort with ancient authors using complex imagery, nor for those images and the things they represent to be fused and blended—for symbols to have multiple meanings and prophecies to have multiple fulfillments simultaneously. It strikes me as fitting that the stone, the vineyard, and the sheepfold could represent both Christ and the things closely connected to his saving work. For Nephi and Jacob, this could naturally have meant the record they were contributing to, but for us it might represent modern revelation, or the quiet daily workings of the Church in which we participate and serve. It could mean us, working as servants in the vineyard, trying our best to nourish and nurse those around us, to gather lost sheep, and to plant our lives on the cornerstone of Christ. We are part of the redemptive arc of Israel and are enacting our own tragically comedic arcs whenever we repent and return to Christ. As we do so, we can spare a bit of thought for those ancient prophetic figures that sacrificed so that their record could make it into our hands, serving as evidence that the path we’re on is the right one—the one established by Christ for the purpose of returning us home.

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